Artist joins political dogfight
An artist standing for election in the seat vacated by controversial Tory MP Anthony Steen has launched a campaign mocking the expenses scandal.
Simon Drew, an illustrator and gallery owner of Dartmouth, South Devon, for 30 years, decided to come forward as an independent candidate in Totnes after being "appalled and sickened" by the behaviour of politicians.
One of his hand-drawn campaign leaflets sees ducks in the House of Commons – an allusion to one MP claiming expenses for a duck island or to lame duck politicians.
The leaflet reads: "A politician is someone who, on seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, orders more tunnel."
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In particular, the 57-year-old says he took umbrage at the "insensitive remark" made by Mr Steen during the expenses furore. The Tory grandee suggested voters forced him to quit his seat because they were "jealous" of his Devon mansion which resembles the Royal castle Balmoral.
Mr Drew, part of a wave of independent candidates, including Esther Rantzen, prompted to stand as a result of the expenses revelations, said this "proved how far removed he was from the concerns and values of his electorate".
Mr Steen said he would retire at the general election after 36 years when he was revealed to have claimed more than £80,000 for four years for work at his £1 million South Devon mansion.
As a small businessman who runs the Simon Drew Gallery in Dartmouth, Mr Drew's central contention is that the party political system is undermining democracy. His campaign runs under the slogan: "Local issues, not party issues."
Of the party system, he said: "It means that on certain issues, the MP cannot vote in a way that disagrees with the official party line – regardless of whether he or she judges that to be against the best interests of their constituents.
"Party politics seems therefore to encourage insecurity and to stifle independent thought. An Independent MP would be in a position to do what's best for his or her electorate, free from the restrictions of an inflexible party line."
"I said to my wife, Caroline, I was going to stand, and the third time I said it she knew I was serious," he joked.
Mr Drew is standing against a Tory candidate who came to prominence as a direct result of the expenses controversy last year. Sarah Wollaston, a GP from Dartmoor, was elected to represent the party following Britain's first open primary – meaning any voter in the constituency could have a say, no matter their political leaning.
As a result, Dr Wollaston, who admitted she was a political novice, has been vaunted as the people's candidate after beating two career politicians to the nomination.
To win, Mr Drew would have to perform something of a political miracle. Dr Wollaston boasts a notional majority of 2,693 votes, meaning her nearest rival, Liberal Democrat Julian Brazil, requires a swing of nearly three per cent. Labour and the UK Independence Party have also put forward candidates in Totnes.
But there is growing antipathy to the status quo. Former MP Martin Bell has issued a call to voters to make May 6 Independents Day by backing candidates not affiliated to political parties.
Mr Drew said: "I'd like to win. Realistically, I know my area is very Tory, so consequently I'm hoping to make a dent in the system. I would hope there are many independent MPs." Mr Drew plans to build his campaign on local issues, including spiralling business rates, which he thinks is crippling South Devon's small business community – which is central to the local economy.
So far, the response has been positive. "You would have thought people will show up and say this is all rubbish and you will get nowhere. But I think – if you pardon the expression – people are browned off with the main parties."
The next hustings involving Mr Drew and rival candidates takes place tomorrow at Totnes Civic Hall at 6.30pm.