I am proud to be standing for Renew in the Wandsworth council elections in May. I had spent a long time quite happy as an independent with no intention of standing as a candidate, of any type, for some time. So what changed?

Becoming independent

Leaving the Conservatives was a long time coming for me. I felt the Conservatives had ceased representing me both locally and nationally, and on Wandsworth they were feeling increasingly tired: interested only in control and lacking any positive vision for the borough.

I have enjoyed being an independent councillor and feel I make a difference (much bigger than I ever could as Conservative). But that was limited.

While I enjoyed the freedom to, say, help Tooting parkrun get started or advise the Save Battersea Park group in getting rid of Formula E it was a pretence to say I was alone. I was able to help because I was an independent, free from the shackles of party control (although I had been surreptitiously helping both, even while in the Conservative group), the fact is that those campaign’s successes only came about because everyone involved was part of something larger.

Joining Renew

And that brought me to Renew. The choice between the mainstream parties is no choice at all. It would be unimaginable to re-join a Conservative Party that seems to want nothing more than a return to the 1950s, or a Labour Party moving further and further to the left, especially while both are propping up each other’s hard Brexit delusions.

The Liberal Democrats might have some attractions, being at least anti-Brexit. But it’s hard to see how they can have any impact: tainted by their involvement in the coalition and led by Vince Cable they are simply not the right choice for challenge we face.

And that left Renew: an anti-Brexit, centrist party, a home for all those people, like me, who have found themselves politically homeless since the referendum.

What Renew offers Wandsworth

Renew is not looking to control Wandsworth council, it is quite purposefully not putting up a full slate of 60 candidates, but instead offers a compelling opportunity to voters to make their voice heard; to send a message from a 75% remain borough that hard-Brexit is not what we want, and that a choice between two extremist parties is no choice at all.

I have seen the difference that a couple of independently minded, evidence-driven councillors has made. Malcolm Grimston and I were the leading councillors forcing the council to take an aggressive stance in defending the rights of EU citizens while Conservatives were still busy crowing about the referendum result. And Malcolm has led the campaign to stand up for leaseholders being forced to pay thousands for unnecessary sprinklers.

Renew councillors can continue that role; holding whoever controls the council to account, and promoting a centrist view to balance the extremes of either a Conservative or Labour administration.

The council elections are the last scheduled election before the two-year article 50 notice period expires. You will have three votes. If you want to send a message about Brexit to the main parties, and if you want councillors that will represent you and not a few from their extreme fringes, then use one of the three votes for your Renew candidate.

The courtyard entrance to Wandsworth Town Hall

However much I may be disappointed in the referendum result, it is now time to move on and make sure the country and the borough are as successful as it can be. It is, therefore, saddening to see reports of racist incidents that appear to be related to the referendum result.

While I do not believe for a second the result has somehow created racism, it may well have emboldened those who hold those racist views.

We should be unequivocal in saying that such views are as reprehensible now as they were before the votes had been counted.

As independent councillors Malcolm Grimston and I circulated the following statement among fellow councillors at the weekend inviting them all to endorse it:

As councillors we are all proud of Wandsworth’s diversity and cohesion. We are confident Wandsworth will remain a great place to live for everyone. However, we are aware that there have been examples across the country of people interpreting the vote to leave the European Union as an excuse for racism and other divisive behaviour, not just aimed at our good friends from the European Union.

We want to stress that we fully support the comments of Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, and our three local MPs, Jane Ellison, Justine Greening and Rosena Allin-Khan: to everyone who has chosen to make Wandsworth their home wherever they may hail from we reiterate you remain warmly welcome in the Brighter Borough.

Wandsworth is all the stronger for its diversity and the different contributions made by all our residents and we as Councillors will do everything we can to make sure that you continue to enjoy the inclusive and peaceful life which characterises our Borough

The Labour Group on Wandsworth have endorsed the statement and I will update this post as others join.

Update: In response council leader Ravi Govindia has put out his own statement part of which touches on this issue alongside broader issues like Nine Elms and low council tax.

Cllr Marie Hanson (Con) has retweeted the initial statement.

Ever since I’ve been politically aware I’ve been a eurosceptic. If I’m honest, I don’t know why. There were probably childish elements, as a young Conservative (though not, I stress, a Young Conservative) it was probably as much feeling a need to fit in at a time euroscepticism was de rigueur than any intellectual concerns about the EU project.

That euroscepticism remained with me for years. Again, possibly a consequence of the company I kept: you tend to be an average of the people with whom you spend most time and in any case the possibility of Brexit was only ever theoretical.

Somewhere though, something has changed and during the campaign I have never seriously considered voting anything but remain. I am instinctively ‘in’ just as I would have been instinctively ‘out’ only a few years ago.

The referendum will never be considered British democracy’s finest hour whatever the result. From its conception to the final debates it has been defined more by the negative. This was perhaps inevitable when the referendum had no real purpose other than helping a party leader keep his party together.

That’s a shame, because the referendum should inherently be about positive, but competing, visions: whether we’d be more successful as a part of Europe or as an independent nation outside. Instead the campaign’s negative tone has created a corrosive political environment which will continue to take its toll on democracy, and society, for years to come.

Even knowing that, when I try to rationalise my decision I find I’m drawn to the negatives: put off by Boris Johnson’s opportunism, offended by what might be racist undertones, or just Nigel Farage being Nigel Farage.

Trying to look at things more objectively, I can start to feel more positive about ‘remain’. I believe my family would be financially worse off out of Europe. Likewise, I am concerned that Brexit puts many workers’ rights we take for granted at risk. And while the leave campaign highlights all the trade agreements we could enter if we left the EU, it seems a trifle bizarre to leave the one we are already in with 27 other nations.

But these are hypothetical. I know and respect many people who would take the opposite view, that we’d be better off out. It’s impossible to prove one way or the other.

Ultimately, I wonder if it’s just a question of faith. Do I just believe we are better off in than out?

I always take my children with me to vote. While I know, logically, my single vote makes no difference, I feel it’s important they grow up seeing democracy up close. Because while we might just cast one vote, it represents a core truth that we are part of something much bigger and much more important.

The EU may be far from perfect (our own democratic system is far from perfect too, that’s the way these things are), and sometimes it means we have to accept things we might not like. That’s part of life for nation states as much as it is for people. And like anything in life, you don’t get better by walking away from challenges.

I want my children to continue growing up in a world that’s increasingly connected, not a country that’s isolated; a world where they see other nations as friends and neighbours, not a country that just sees foreigners we should fear or suspect; in a world where their potential is limited by their imagination, not by the the arbitrary borders of a nation state.

I’m voting to remain in the EU not just because I know it isn’t just me that will be better off in, my children are better off in.

Many years ago, possibly before I even became a councillor, I remember wishing that I could observe politics without having such a strong self-interest. I was jealous of those who could be impartial commentators and able to watch events unfold with the disinterest that is only possible if you haven’t hitched yourself to one of the parties.

Of course, one day I will be able to do that. I no longer want to be an MP, I won’t be a councillor forever and having been an activist for over twenty years I can’t help but feel I’ve done my time. However, the alternative vote referendum has given me a little sample of what that life will be like.

Frankly, it’s not appealing.

Not because I found myself desperately wanting to be part of the process (although I inevitably found myself involved in the campaigning), but because I realised that to the observer politics just isn’t that appealing!

Perhaps annoyingly, as someone who believes passionately in the value of debate, this campaign has not served as an example to the world. Recent days – overshadowed by a wedding and a burial at sea as they were – were characterised far more by Huhne’s hissy fits than intellectual debate and argument on electoral reform. It’s been politics and not policy.

I have written before that I’m a supporter of first-past-the-post. But for most of this campaign I’ve been pretty much on the fence. A lot of this is because of my affection for the coalition. It turns out that the world did not stop spinning on its axis when we got a coalition government. In any case, AV is not much a proportional system and barely a change from FPTP – many have pointed out that it would have delivered even more decisive victories in elections like 1997, while last year’s hung parliament would still have been a hung parliament.

In fact, I came to realise that I was a floating voter. While my instincts may have been FPTP I couldn’t totally discount the arguments for AV.

But when I cast my vote today my cross will be in the ‘No’ box. And, if the polls are anything to go by, my experience is not uncommon.

Maybe it’s in my psychological make-up is conservative as well as Conservative so I needed persuading by the Yes campaign to move from a default no vote. But their campaign has been far from persuasive, the argument that a voting system affects the work rate of MPs is so weak as to be laughable. And the charge that there are “wasted votes” seems to suggest that votes only have value if they elect somebody and ignoring that AV, by definition invites up to 49% wastage in any case.

Under the current system we see landslides when they are needed, just as we’ve see second and third terms when they are needed. And while you might claim that AV forces parties and candidates to be more representative you can hardly deny that the past few decades have been dominated by a battle for the middle ground.

In fact it’s the sophistication of the electorate that really matters, not the sophistication of the electoral system. And I happen to think we have a very sophisticated electorate; who cast or with-hold their vote, remain loyal to their party, switch or vote tactically to get the result that the nation collectively wants or needs. And that’s why I’m hoping we stick with first-past-the-post.

Another edict extending direct democracy has come forth from Eric Pickles. This time that a local referendum will be forced whenever a local council increases council tax by more than a pre-set amount.

As a government fan boy you would expect me to support it, but while I’m definitely in the fan boy category (why else did I sacrifice so much of my life knocking on doors through each and every general election false start from 2007 onwards?) I can’t quite make my mind up on this one.

On the face of it, it is perfectly sensible. The notion that Whitehall should be deciding what is, and isn’t, an appropriate level of council tax is just crazy. The key word in the phrase local democracy is local. The current system – which will remain in place until the law is changed – has nothing local about it at all, since it can see a minister from a totally different part of the council (and a different party) making decisions about areas of which he or she knows nothing. So the principle of moving power from Whitehall to local people is not one with which I can disagree.

However, I do wonder whether a local referendum is the right way. While many of my youthful beliefs in the constitution have disappeared I’m still a fan of representative democracy – we elect people to act as representatives, not as a delegates, and tend not to use direct democracy.

Of course, many of the old arguments against direct democracy are disappearing. People are (generally) more intelligent and informed than at any time in history. The argument that they don’t, or can’t, have the full information to take a decision applies less and less each day. However, the fact remains that we live in a representative democracy and there are problems in trying to blend the two. If you have a council elected on a specific platform one year it’s hard to then vote to remove the budget they need to enact that platform the next. And this starts getting towards where my concerns about this lie.

I have no problem with the principle that power should be devolved as far as possible. And am not someone who believes for a second that the lowest level of devolution is the council; the lowest level is the individual. But I am very keen on local democracy. And it’s the other key word in that phrase that causes my concern with this proposal. To my mind the key to a strong and successful democracy is linking the vote you cast with the consequences of that vote, and that vote alone.

Local democracy isn’t that healthy in this country. One of the key reasons is that so much local government funding comes from central government. When this is combined with the huge amount of regulation laid down over the years it meant that impact of a local vote on your life was significantly less than the impact of a national vote, to the extent that many council elections are seen as little more than verdicts on the government of the day.

The best way to improve local democracy, to my mind, is to strengthen the link between people’s votes in local elections with what happens in their area. This means giving councils freedom, so they aren’t just acting as agents for Whitehall and can innovate (or even make mistakes) to make a difference to their area. And it means ensuring that people recognise and see the consequence of their votes so that when they are casting them the next time it is a referendum on their local council, not on whoever is in No 10.

I’d be interested in seeing how the proposals work and the reaction of others to them (I’m quite prepared to accept I’m wrong on this). But it seems to me that just as we don’t have a referendum on income tax or VAT rises, but instead will allow the country to pass judgement in 2015, we should be reminding people how important it is to pass judgement on their local councils and councillors in local elections.