South Tyneside's loosely formed coalition group of independent councillors and hopefuls are watching the start of the slow wind up to the forthcoming May local elections, heralded by the growth in touchy feely council "we're listening" consultations and positive press pieces. Traditionally it's difficult for non Labour parties to get their voices in the local press, which is exacerbated by many council press releases heavily featuring Labour councillors. Added to this the Labour Party gets free party political advertising in the Shields Gazette in the form of regular opinion pieces by South Tyneside Labour MPs David Miliband and Stephen Hepburn, with Councillor Paul Waggott, the Leader of the Council, telling us we ain't had it so good. I've yet to read an opinion piece by an opposition councillor (or opposition anything) in the Shields Gazette.
However, it seems that press bias is becoming the least of the independent worries. Some of the independents councillors and hopefuls are concerned that the local Labour Party will stand a notional 'independent' straw man (or woman) in several of the wards, particularly those where an independent councillor already stands, or where Labour consider a seat loss to be likely. If true, it means that the local Labour party is cynically attempting to dilute the independent vote, hoping that voters will mistake their chap for the real independent. This tactic has been used since the time of the Ancient Greeks, so who said democracy is dead?
The local BNP is planning a big push this year, having already targeted leafleting in several local areas and nationally the BNP is in the middle of an initiative to canvass and encourage expired party members to rejoin. It's anyone's guess where the votes will come from - protest from former Labour voters, traditional right wingers or even those wanting anything but Labour - but chances are it will also erode the independent vote.
Another addition to the opposition brew is the recently formed South Tyneside Green Party, which is planning to field candidates for wards in Jarrow and Hebburn, and in South Shields the wards of Cleadon, Harton, Horsley Hill and Beacon and Bents.
Sure, it's no surprise that politics is dirty, but are Labour really that worried that they'll lose their dominant position in South Tyneside that they'll go to the bother of fielding straw men whilst there's so many opposition vehicles out there? It'll be an interesting game to try and spot the true affiliations of some of the independent candidates.
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