In recent years it has become more common for members of Parliament to quit the party under whose banner they were elected and sit either as Independents or for one of their former rivals.
More than two dozen Labour MPs (almost 10 per cent of the then total) left to join the newly formed SDP in 1981. During the 2017 Parliament, more than 50 MPs either lost the whip (sometimes temporarily) and/or adopted a different political label.
And as in the House of Commons, so in local government. In our annual audit of the political make-up of councils in England and Wales, we were surprised to note an increase of more than 100 in the number of councillors listed as either Independent or representing smaller parties between May 2019 and May 2020.
This was despite by-elections stopping in March and just five results in the previous 10 months featuring such gains.
One of those five cases was in Basingstoke and Deane, resulting in the Conservatives losing overall control.
However, bigger upheaval in the council’s composition was to follow in December. Then, nine of the 21 sitting Labour councillors jumped ship to become Independents, claiming that ‘a lot of people in the borough have become disillusioned with party politics’.
“The record of those who cross the floor is not always a happy one”
In Plymouth, it was members of the Conservative opposition who resigned the whip. They cited dissatisfaction with a new leadership team, while insisting they remained committed to the Conservative cause.
In Spelthorne in Surrey, six Conservatives, including the leader, quit the party in June this year to form a United Spelthorne Group, which they pledged would ‘put the needs of Spelthorne residents first’. In doing so they deprived their former colleagues of a majority for the first time since the council was created in 1974.
But it is not always the ‘big’ parties that suffer. In Thurrock, for example, several councillors originally elected as Independents (or even, in some cases, as UKIP back in 2016) joined the Conservatives in early 2020, allowing them majority control without a single electoral ballot being cast.
In Hartlepool, the Brexit party had its first brief taste of formal political power in September 2019. None of its now 10 councillors had ever been elected under that label but decided to change from their previous Independent or small party designation.
The group subsequently formed a pact with the Conservatives to form a minority administration. Less than six months later, all but one returned to their previous allegiance while retaining the governance agreement with the Conservatives.
Come next May, many of the councillors involved in ‘crossing the floor’ will stand down. Others will try to appeal to voters over the heads of their previous party. The record of those who do so is not always a happy one, as all 18 sitting MPs in this position at the December 2019 General Election discovered to their cost.
However, despite the organisational superiority of the major parties, the scale of wards and the likelihood of personal connections within both them and the wider authority, does make it easier for individuals and small groups to mount targeted campaigns at a local election.
With opinion polls suggesting that public trust in government is plumbing unprecedented depths, expect more successes for such candidates in May.