I spent several hours yesterday knocking on doors in the Wick area of Littlehampton. It is the home neighbourhood of Paul Sanderson who is standing as the Independent candidate in the General Election on 8th June. Paul is new to elections outside of school rooms, but he has a strong understanding of how politics impacts communities and the need to change public policy particularly in areas such as education and provision for young people where he has worked for the last 20 years. Paul was the founder of a project called The Wire in 1996 and today works at Littlehampton’s Academy known as TLA.
It is ironic that Pauls home town and constituency has for 20 years been the constituency represented by Nick Gibb who has since 2010 with a short break, been the Schools Minister in the Department for Education. In that time Paul has observed many challenges introduced into the education system including in recent years the stripping out of funds from schools which is denying young people access to an effective education, not just in Littlehampton and Bognor Regis, but throughout the UK.
Because Paul is standing as an Independent he is not proposing on his own to be able to replace the Government, and although he is no fan of the Conservatives, he has also observed many mistakes that were made by the last Labour Government. However he is aware of the very positive impact that Caroline Lucas has had since her election in 2010. As a single green MP she has demonstrated that a competent MP who is well connected to their local community and not limited by anonymous power brokers in a party structure can punch well above their weight and influence the Government of the day through dialogue and challenge.
It is clear that none of the other candidates fighting in the election in Bognor and Littlehampton will come close to Nick Gibbs vote count based on the elections over the last 20 years. In the last two elections Nick Gibbs votes accounted for more than 50% of the total votes cast. The same two candidates are standing on behalf of Labour and the Liberal Democrats stood in 2015. There is an adage that if we do the same as we have always done, we will get what we have always got. If we are to see a change in this constituency and across our nation we need to see changes taking place in the way we approach elections.
At every election since 1997 when the Bognor and Littlehampton constituency was formed, more people have chosen not to cast their votes for anyone than have voted for Nick Gibb. This means that his lead is capable of being overturned, but only if a lot of the people who have never voted choose to change their habits of a lifetime. I was with Paul yesterday when he met someone who stated quite clearly that he had never voted and he could not see any reason why his vote would ever make a difference. We can only hope that his view changes over the next 12 days. I met another person who suggested that Independents never get elected so there was no point voting for Paul, even though he knows he would make a first rate MP. However we also met people from a range of backgrounds and political persuasions who recognised in Paul someone who was a true advocate for their community in a way that Nick Gibb has never acted and were prepared to take a risk with their votes and place their trust in an Independent.
Three of the parties standing in Paul’s constituency have been involved to one extent or another in the Progressive Alliance across the UK and in other parts of Sussex. It seems to me very clear that he offers a very different personal profile and appeal to any of the candidates representing these parties, but his views and policy position is entirely consistent with the views of many of those involved in the Alliance. It is too late for the Lib Dems and Greens to withdraw from the election and Labour has a constitution that obliges to stand in every constituency, no matter how poorly the party is respected. Unless a large number of people who usually don’t vote and others who have previously voted for one of the three parties, vote for Paul, it seems unlikely he will defeat Nick Gibb. Such decisions would make a huge impact on Bognor Regis and Littlehampton and would send a strong message to the Government that has shown itself to be a poor steward of our education system and done a great deal of damage to the educational prospects of our current cohort of pupils and students. Whilst Paul would not be invited by either main party to participate in their Government, just like Caroline Lucas he would play a significant role in Parliament, holding future Governments to account. In Pauls case as well as being a first rate advocate for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, he would be someone who can speak up with great understanding of the needs of young people in some of our neediest communities. He would be the first person to admit that he lacks the background that Nick Gibb brought to Parliament in 1997. Nick had spent all of his time since leaving education focusing on Party Politics and working as an Accountant. Paul instead has spent his last 20 years working in education and charities, based in a deprived and marginalised community. His is a voice that is desperately needed in the House of Commons.