It’s easy to see independent parties as a figure of fun, and a quirk of the British democratic process. Stood alongside the usual parties on election night, occasionally clad in strange costume, it’s not often they win power.
However, in Mexborough, a town 17 miles north of Sheffield, a group of three independent councillors have ousted the Labour incumbents over the last five years, and are seeking re-election to Doncaster Council this week.
Andy Pickering, 59, is the party’s longest serving councillor, having defeated Labour councillor David Holland in 2014.
He said the party’s formation was down to the lack of Labour support for Mexborough’s local businesses: “The party started following the ‘Save the High Street’ (STHS) campaign in 2012.
“The Council came out with a plan to build a large supermarket in the town and this was months after another store had been given permission. Had the superstore been built, it would’ve given Mexborough four supermarkets. Per head of population, it would’ve made us one of the oversaturated areas in the country.”
When the local councillor didn’t show at a crucial planning meeting, and instead had a statement read out in support, Cllr Pickering saw this as the final straw.
“I thought ‘I don’t see why he should be able to get away with that. Argue the case, but don’t ignore it and support it at a critical moment. There was a real feeling in the area that people were being ignored.
“We found in Mexborough that the Labour Party were running the town down. We got the idea that national parties just pursued national interests at the end of the day.”
With the local campaigners frustrated by the lack of support from their local representative, they decided to take their stand. He said: “As luck would have it, a vacant seat was available and STHS put a candidate up. The person who was going to do it got cold feet at the last minute. So I was asked to run.”
Cllr Pickering finished second, but then won a seat in 2014, under the Mexborough First banner, and he was later joined by Sean Gibbons, who runs a food bank in Doncaster, and Bev Chapman, a market trader who had been part of the original STHS campaign in 2015.
The party have since fought campaigns against HS2’s route going through the Shimmer and Strata housing estates in the town, and successfully against the closure and relocation of the Depot, a drugs support centre.
Cllr Pickering said: “We were very proud of saving the drug rehabilitation centre. It’s one of those things that goes under the radar. It’s a discreet facility that was doing some great work, and because it’s discreet, people don’t know about the good work it’s doing.”
Despite never expecting to go into politics, it’s a job that he has relished over the past three years.
“To get the approval from the people in your own town is amazing. To be able to help people and influence decisions over the town, it’s a really good feeling. Being a councillor gives you the chance to be in the know of decisions that are being considered, and action taken or inaction.
“People will never contact a Mexborough First councillor and be told ‘We’re not working today, come to the surgery.’ You can be involved. It’s solving people’s problems,” he said.
Looking ahead to Thursday, Cllr Pickering is hopeful about his chances.
“I’m always a glass half full person, but we won’t count any chickens. What we can say is that it’s very positive, I can’t honestly say that I’ve come across a single person who has been negative about us.”