This week’s by-election in Selby and Ainsty, triggered when local MP Nigel Adams stepped down in the wake of Boris Johnson’s demise as an MP, represents something of a weathervane for an impending general election. Accordingly, Adam’s resignation is far from the only subject that voters are bringing up on the doorstep. With economic uncertainty hanging in the air and crises over public sector pay, access to basic services and the general reputation of politics and politicians all in the public’s mind, this by-election is certainly one that will see a lot of problems raised and a lot of grievances addressed that aren’t unique to Selby and Ainsty.
As part of a series of interviews with the candidates, I recently spoke to Andrew Gray, one of the independents. There is often a stream of independent candidates standing in by-elections, in part because of the attention they generate and in part because, unlike during a general election, there is a feeling of real focus on the concerns of the community rather than the country as a whole. Gray is perhaps one of the most interesting independents you will likely come across – partly due to his background and partly due to the reputation he has earned as the ‘AI candidate’ – based on his focus on artificial intelligence.
The autonomy of an independent
But it would be wrong to assume that Gray is simply the ‘AI candidate’, as this may suggest there is something artificial about him. Sitting down to speak to him this was very much not the impression I received. Gray is an engaging, enthusiastic speaker and was open about what drove him to stand. He told me he had no choice but to stand, simply because he was aware of how all the parties operated and found them lacking.
“I grew up a Tory, my parents were Tories and my dad’s a Tory councillor, they’re really good people”, Gray grinned at this point before adding “It definitely wasn’t cool being a 90s Tory!” He explained that he’d then joined Labour and stood for the party but had subsequently left them and, despite having a dabble with the Liberal Democrats – “only because generally they’re fairly pleasant people” – Gray felt that, for him, it was now best to stay outside of specific political parties. “For me personally, none of them fit where I’m at.”
Gray also believes that the system of individual parties pitting themselves against one another can have a negative impact on politics in general; that the need to become tribal can lead to political discourse becoming not about ideas but about cheering sides on as if it were a football match.
Harnessing AI to improve democracy
Gray went on to explain that his campaign had been built around trying to be as representative of what voters wanted and becoming, as he argued, “a true voice for the people, not merely a representative of a party that has to follow the whip of the party leadership”. Gray, who is a solicitor by profession, although he has recently sold his business, has been involved in a number of projects using polling and AI. He been using Polis, a real-time system for gathering, analysing and aggregating what large groups of people think, to help formulate his manifesto. Polis is available via the website for the Crowd Wisdom Project. It has produced some startling results.
One of the projects using Polis that Gray was involved in was the Harrogate District Consensus Project, with one poll showing how residents of Harrogate felt about a proposed 20-mile-an-hour speed limit. This revealed that of the 14,000 votes were gathered from 450 people that took part, most wanted 20-mile-an-hour speed limits outside schools. Gray explains further:
“With a Polis survey, people vote on scores of statements. In Wandsworth, we ran [a survey] for the council there about clean air. There, we had 56k votes, with the average voter voting 98 times! Imagine the accuracy and granularity of the data, plus also see how people are educated on the platform, being able to see an argument from every angle.”
Gray is clearly invested in projects like this – he has also lost friends on the roads and is a father to young children – this personal investment in the nitty-gritty of public policy shines through when talking to him.
This is at the centre of Gray’s pitch – to do representative politics by asking the public what they think and doing his best to represent their views. He does not want to feel he would do anything contrary to the concerns of his constituents or his own conscious. Gray contends this is more likely if your MP is a member of a political party as they are whipped along particular party lines. He went on to argue that if he were to win, it would send a political shockwave through Westminster and bring the attention to Selby and Ainsty that seats like Brighton Pavilion have received since the election of Green MP Caroline Lucas.
An independent stance on national issues
We turn to some of the particular issues that Andrew feels especially passionate about, for example the renationalisation of the Bank of England. It is an issue, given the current rise in interest rates, that Gray believes would be popular if implemented and one that none of the major parties are supporting:
“[The Bank of England] penalise anyone on a variable rate mortgage, or anyone who’s a renter who’s connected with a variable rate mortgage. So the bank have decided that something like 20% of the British people are going to bear the cost of miss-sold PPE, furlough, the war in Ukraine, international gas hikes and it just isn’t right; a lot of this stuff like the money during furlough was necessary but I can’t see how it’s going to help the public that they are penalised by the bank for it.”
The issue of the rise in the price of mortgages and the knock-on effect that has had on the increase of some rents will certainly chime with people. But this is part of a larger change Gray is advocating for, based on the extensive polling he has done in Selby and Ainsty, including an overhaul of the NHS, a closer relationship with (though not rejoining) the European Union. Gray also favours more government intervention in the economy with a transaction tax introduced on mega-corporations like Amazon to help lower business rates for smaller companies.
This all comes from polling that Gray has conducted in Selby and Ainsty and it is perhaps not unsurprising that anger with the state of the economy is high on people’s list of grievances.
The failure of the NHS to provide certain types of care is felt by some particularly acutely, Gray suggests: “the NHS dentist doesn’t really exist anymore. Only 20% of people in Selby that we’ve polled can actually get an appointment in a reasonable time and it just does really seem dead.” It is in some ways a shocking statistic but one that many people across Yorkshire and the rest of the country will certainly feel reflects their experiences.
Innovation is needed to fix our broken politics
Asked what he felt about his opponents, Andrew was clear. He asserts that, unlike in previous general elections, he is not seeing enthusiasm for either of the main parties; that this wasn’t going to be like 1997 or any other election which saw a similar sea change. Gray clearly feels that things are broken in British politics – he admits as much to me towards the end of the interview. But what he hopes will be taken from this election is that: “these institutions, parliament, the courts and others are broken, not irretrievably broken, but broken and fixable. And when we innovate, which we do very well in the UK, we usually succeed. Our democracy hasn’t innovated and we need it to – desperately. If I’m elected, I hope that’s what I’m going to help do.”
Gray is clearly an engaged individual and has found a way of addressing politics that feels unique. However, it will ultimately be up to the voters of Selby and Ainsty to decide whether he is the best person to represent them in parliament.
Whatever happens, if you’re a constituent in Selby and Ainsty or in Somerton and Frome or Uxbridge and South Ruislip make sure to use your vote on the 20 July.
Addendum – Independent candidates standing in the Selby and Ainsty by-election have issued the following joint statement:
“Predictably, coverage of the Selby and Ainsty by-election has been mired in BBC bias. Independent candidates, Councillor Tyler Wilson-Kerr, Nick Palmer and Andrew Gray, have been marginalised. Whilst non-state-owned media have been fairer, it is a disservice to voters that Independent candidates face such inequalities in timing and extent of coverage.
“Independents are a vital voice in British democracy, not beholden to the party whips – an archaic system which crushes democracy.
“Tyler, Nick and Andrew all bring valuable experience to this election. The habit of mainstream media to treat elections as a largely binary choice is both insulting to Yorkshire voters and damaging to democracy. Tyler is both the youngest candidate this election, and the youngest parish councillor in the country. Recognisable youth representation is vital for the future development of British Politics and the BBC’s refusal to cover the Independent candidates is harmful to our democracy.
“In Selby’s 2022 May local elections, Independents came third. With so many candidates, the likely margin of victory is likely to be small. The state broadcaster’s position could sway this election.”Councillor Tyler Wilson-Kerr, Nick Palmer and Andrew Gray