State of independents – fringe parties and the spirit of democracy

Posted: May 2, 2015 in politics and ideas
Tags: , , , , , , ,

One of the features of the 2015 General Election has been the attention paid to parties in what we might once have seen as the second tier of parliamentary importance. In the likely absence of a clear majority for any party, speculation abounds on the potential for the Lib Dems and/ or the DUP to act as Westminster kingmakers, or for the SNP to adopt the intriguing role of king-slayers.

But there is a further tier of electoral activity that has, understandably, been somewhat deprioritised during this election campaign: the independent candidates and fringe parties. In this post I want to share my love for the mixture of mavericks, seers and occasional bastards who, for me, embody the true democratic spirit.

You can tell a lot about an election from the patterns of participation in it by outsiders, and I think #GE2015 is no different. Interested? Read on.

Under the terms of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, candidates standing for election in the UK can either use a registered party name, or declare as ‘Independent’, or opt for no affiliation at all. The requirement to register a party name enables us for the first time to know how many political parties actually exist in Britain – and there are currently more than 400. And you thought you had no choice!

Candidates standing in the General Election have put up a £500 deposit, which they get back if they secure 5% of the vote in their constituency. I think the deposit system is ridiculous and should be done away with. £500 is a lot of money and 5% of a constituency is a lot of votes. The rationale for requiring candidates to put up a deposit is to dissuade time-wasters from running for Parliament, but (a) political time-wasting is in the eye of the beholder, and (b) what’s wrong with time-wasters standing for election?

Happily, this bizarrely unchallenged barrier to political participation hasn’t been enough to stop every outsider from throwing his or her hat into the ring at UK General Elections. I’ve trawled through the records of the last five elections going back to 1992, and pulled together what information is available in next week’s 2015 election. You’d be surprised how difficult it is to find usable data on this stuff, so I’m indebted to the Electoral Commission, Iain Outlaw and Your Next MP for their assiduous record-keeping.

Insiders and outsiders

Under current legislation, independent candidates can register as a ‘party’ and contest elections under a party name. As such, since the 2001 election it has been almost impossible to distinguish between Independent candidates and parties that are basically the work of a single individual. At the same time, the decision of a citizen to run for election under their own name rather than that of a party is arguably significant; it might suggest that they are looking the electorate more squarely in the eye. I wouldn’t push this theory too far, but I have tentatively distinguished independents from fringe parties in the analysis that follows.

I’ve defined a fringe party rather subjectively and widely as any party missing from the following list:

Labour/ Cooperative

Conservative

Liberal Democrat

SNP

Plaid Cymru

Green

DUP

Sinn Fein

Alliance

SDLP

Ulster Unionist

UKIP

I appreciate that others might assemble different lists. To be upfront about my assumptions, I’ve treated the BNP as a fringe party (although you’ll see in a minute why I may not have done). I’ve also considered UKIP as a ‘non-fringe’ party at all elections since they first appeared in 1997, even though they probably were a fringe party at first. I have treated the various Green Parties as established parties, although their electoral performance might not seem to merit it. And I’ve treated all of the significant Northern Irish parties as mainstream parties irrespective of their size, largely because my knowledge of Northern Irish politics is not forensic enough to distinguish outsiders from insiders.

There is one party missing from my list above that effectively resists categorisation – the Referendum Party from 1997. I’ll discuss them separately.

So, if you’re not on my list above, and you’re not the Referendum Party, then you’re an Independent or a fringe party for the purposes of this piece. And you embody the true spirit of democracy. (Well, most of you).

Lest we forget

If a week is a long time in politics, the four or five years between elections provide ample opportunity to forget entire chapters of our political history.

Let’s start with the 1992 election. Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems  each contested more than 600 seats. But which party was the fourth most active, contesting more than 300 constituencies? None other than the Natural Law Party. Remember them? The yogic flying people? They contested 309 out of 651 seats. That’s more than £150,000 in deposits alone. They followed this effort by contesting 197 seats in 1997, before disappearing.

I had completely forgotten about the Natural Law Party. The fringe party that sprung to mind before I started reading back through old election results was, instead, the Monster Raving Loony Party. Weirdly, for a party that everyone remembers, they only fought 24 seats in 1992. In fact, they have contested about 20 seats at each election since, so they’re no less active today than they were when Screaming Lord Sutch was on the telly all the time.

The 1992 records also reveal the presence of the Raving Loony Green Giant party. I didn’t realise they Monster Raving Loony Party had experienced a split. I wonder what it was about? Green giant policy, perhaps.

The 1997 election is remembered today for a number of things – Blair still claiming not to be taking anything for granted even after Labour had won each of the first 100 seats to declare; Portillo losing his seat; other forgotten Tories losing their seats; the Tories losing all of their Scottish seats; Prescott and Cook dancing awkwardly afterwards; and so on. But do you remember the Referendum Party? I had forgotten all about them too. You may now be vaguely recalling James Goldsmith forming a party on the single issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe, but you’ll be surprised to learn that they contested 547 out of 659 seats across the UK. They won more than 800,000 votes, and then immediately disappeared.

The list of constituency participation from 1997 makes for strange reading in retrospect: after Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, the most seats were contested by the Natural Law Party, Referendum Party and, running in almost 200 seats in their first election, hip young things UKIP.

Then in 2001 the list of participating parties just explodes. Blair’s second landslide won most of the media attention, so you may have missed the Church of the Militant Elvis party, for whom David Bishop won 68 votes in the Brentwood and Ongar seat. Elsewhere the electors of Dartford found the Fancy Dress Party on their ballot papers (344 citizens backed them), while someone called Ginger Crab contested Kensington and Chelsea (!) for the intriguing Jam Wrestling party. His/ her/ its 100 votes weren’t quite enough to see off the returning Michael Portillo on that occasion.

Meanwhile, the snappily titled Pacifist for Peace, Justice, Cooperation, Environment party also made their presence known in 2001, alongside Women for Life on Earth. Those parties sound nice, don’t they? If only they’d been able to contest more than one seat each, a feat achieved by the Vote for Yourself party, which ran in four constituencies. That two grand someone was never seeing again in lost deposits.

Last but not least, I wish we’d heard more from the Unrepresented People’s Party. The voters of Kingston and Surbiton must already have felt adequately represented, because only 54 of them bought into this excellent concept.

The 2005 election saw the arrival of Veritas, Kilroy’s party. They only contested 65 seats, which is a surprise in view of the at-times blanket media coverage they received at the time. Slightly more alarmingly, the BNP stood in 119 constituencies in 2005, upping of the ante compared with previous elections when they’d contested fewer than half as many seats. Meanwhile the ultra-nationalist English Democrats stood for the first time, in 24 seats, and the National Front contested a further 13. Dark times.

Happily, the fringe candidates weren’t all racist pricks. Something called the Motorcycle News Party fought one seat, as did the brilliantly named Personality AND Rational Thinking? Yes! Party. Meanwhile, I’m not sure if the Silent Majority Party were meant to be a joke, since they only stood in one seat; that’s one decidedly silent majority. And there was surely something for everyone between Tiger’s Eye: The Party for Kids and the Death, Dungeons and Taxes Party. Finally, it would be good to hear how the Demanding Honesty in Politics and Whitehall party got on with their mission. Still a work in progress, perhaps.

Then in 2010, just five years ago, the BNP was suddenly the fifth most active party in the UK, contesting 338 seats. That’s more than the Natural Law Party ever managed, and three seats more than the Greens contested at that election. Meanwhile the English Democrats fought more than 100 seats. I had completely forgotten about the BNP’s brief rise, but they won well over half a million votes at the last General Election and finished fifth in terms of vote share. So, just five years ago in cosmopolitan Britain, about one voter in 50 supported the BNP or English Democrats.

(It’s notable that the BNP are only contesting eight seats this year; I’ll leave the reader to speculate on where those votes will go).

Elsewhere in 2010, the Christian Party rendered unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and fought 71 seats in a curious one-off effort. The Pirate Party did its thing in nine constituencies, while the prize for Most Worthy Name went to the Peace Party – Non-Violence, Justice, Environment (I think they’d have got on well with that Pacifist For Peace party from 2001).

I wish I could have voted for the Best of a Bad Bunch party, a pleasure reserved for the electors of only two seats, or for No Candidate Deserves My Vote, which registered its disgust in one constituency. I also quite like the idea that a party called Apolitical Democrats ever got it together enough to run for election. And surely we’d all like to hear more from the Bus Pass Elvis Party?

Meanwhile, after a couple of light ales the Lawfulness, Trustworthiness and Transparency party’s sole candidate must have wished her party’s name was easier to say.

Finally, someone actually ran for Parliament under the party name Go Mad and Vote for Yourself. 233 voters from Dorset South accepted this invitation.

So who do we have on our ballot papers this year? Well, the biggest outsiders are the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, which fought a limited campaign five years ago and is contesting 128 seats in 2015. Beyond TUSC there aren’t really any other sizeable fringe contenders, but the supply of eccentrics continues unabated.

In fact, one such party is actually called the Eccentric Party of Great Britain. Someone called Lord Toby is contesting Uxbridge and South Ruislip for them, while the Apolitical Democrats have made it back in Newbury for another campaign of not being interested in politics; great news.

This year’s biggest hippies are the World Peace Through Song party, for whom Joe Stead is standing in Calder Valley. Good luck to them, although personally I’m more excited by the Birthday Party (Dave Dobbs; Wells) or Give Me Back Elmo (Bobby Smith; Witney).

Actually, scratch that last bit; Give Me Back Elmo turns out on closer inspection to be a fathers’ rights thing. The guy’s other policies are quite niche. Firstly, he wants to “Flatten the hamlet of Dean and divert HS2 through It and also build a 1960’s council estate on it”. And then “Twin Witney with Houston in Texas, Then put new road signs up”.

I assume Justice for Men and Boys have similar interests, despite their kinky name (they’re standing in Ashfield and Broxtowe).

Meanwhile, I would certainly give the Free Public Transport Party a second look if I lived in the constituency of Stroud. There are single issue parties like that in every election, although i think a free public transport party might have more electoral salience than the Reduce VAT In Sport party (Vivien Saunders is standing for them against the Elmo guy in Witney).

This year’s equivalent of the silent majority party standing in one seat, is the Mainstream party, also standing in one seat.

Perhaps the most notable fringe party contesting this election is one you may already have heard of: the Al-Zebadist Nation of Ooog, who are fighting South Thanet against Nigel Farage. I urge you to read the mission statement on their Facebook page – it’s a fine work of satire. In short, they want to ban hetero-marriage, invade England and ‘peacefully’ annihilate a nearby town which “contributes nothing, yet leeches resources and dignity from the rest of Thanet”.

And to think that candidates have to put up a £500 deposit to prevent time-wasting. These people are amazing! More time-wasters, please.

State of Independents

So those are the highlights as I see them from the annals of fringe party participation in elections since 1992. But what about Independents? It’s time for a quick dart through some stats.

In 1992 there were 62 independent candidates across the UK, who won a total of 18,000 votes. Contrast this with the 2010 election, when there were 332 independent candidates, winning nearly 200,000 votes.

Indeed, if you add the votes of independent candidates and fringe parties, there is a steady and striking increase from election to election:

1992: 223,156

1997: 368,726

2001: 396,258

2005: 632,428

2010: 1,076290

(N.B. to be clear, the 1997 figure does not include the Referendum Party’s vote share. It would be nearly 1.2m if it did)

About half of the 2010 votes went to the BNP, but that still leaves another 500,000 votes being cast in support of other non-mainstream parties. That’s a lot of votes.

As the number of votes cast in support of outsiders has risen, so too has their share of the popular vote:

1992: 0.7%

1997: 1.2%

2001: 1.5%

2005: 2.3%

2010: 3.6%

3.6% of the total vote went to minor parties and independent candidates in 2010; that’s one voter in every 28. This is significant stuff.

But what of the 2015 election? Well, there will be 119 fringe parties represented this year, which is the same as 2010 – a record high. There will also be 170 independent candidates, about half as many as stood last time when 332 independents stood for election. Taking fringe parties and independents together, 60.3% of the UK’s constituencies will feature an outsider on the ballot paper – that’s 392 seats. By contrast, 549 seats (84.5% of all constituencies) featured an alternative voice in 2010.

It should be noted, however, that 2010 was a bit of an outlier – the volume of outsider participation was fairly similar to this year’s 60% in all the other elections I’ve looked at.

To be clear, the proportion of seats featuring outsider candidates has remained fairly static since 1992, if you ignore the peculiar 2010 election, while their share of the vote has risen. So this isn’t a case of electors having more choice – they’ve had essentially the same likelihood of finding an outsider on the ballot paper since 1992, but grow more likely to back them each time.

Will this trend continue this year? Well, the BNP certainly won’t be getting another 500,000 votes across the eight constituencies they’re contesting (again, for legal reasons I’ll invite the reader to speculate on where those votes might go this time). As such the outsider parties are unlikely to match their 3.7% vote share from 2010 – but they might still surpass the 632,428 votes (2.3%) achieved while Blair was winning for the last (?) time in 2005. I’ll pop back in to update this blog after the event with the actual figures.

Scottish independents

Finally, an inevitable glance at the Scottish context. The results of Westminster constituencies have been pored over in recent months for unheeded signs of Labour’s current collapse, etc. In fact, what strikes you when you look at the figures the way I have done is the rise and fall of the Scottish Socialist Party.

The total votes for independent candidates and fringe parties since 1992 are as follows:

1992: 17,050 (0.6%)

1997: 22,491 (0.8%)

2001: 101,344 (4.4%)

2005: 81,372 (3.5%)

2010: 26,051 (1.1)

The SSP stood all over Scotland in 2001, two years before their Holyrood breakthrough. Largely on their account, every Scottish voter had an alternative option on the ballot paper in 2001 and 2005. All 72 constituencies featured at least one candidate from beyond the mainstream parties, and they won about one vote in 25.

And then they fell to bits, and the outsider voting share dwindled back to pre-SSP levels again in 2010.

This year, 33.9% of seats in Scotland feature a fringe party candidate – the lowest proportion of any of the elections I’ve looked at. Even when those parties are combined with independent candidates, outsiders are only standing in 30 of Scotland’s 59 seats (50.8%) – the lowest proportion since 1992.

This may reflect the consolidation of effort of many activists behind the SNP, but it is surely striking that there is such a paucity of alternative voices standing for election in the supposedly hyper-politicised Scotland of 2015.

The spirit of democracy

On Thursday, British people will be free for 15 hours to elect an executive that reflects our will. Much of the media focus will be on the potential parliamentary role of smaller parties like the DUP and Sco**ish Nat**nal Pa**y, and there will be calls for debates on the nature of multi-party government.

That’s all right and proper, but as you watch I urge you to spare a thought for the 170 independents and 119 fringe parties who have put up a £500 deposit in every seat, chapped on doors, argued in hustings – possibly taking the month off work to do so – only to be ignored by most voters.

Watch every declaration being spun by the major parties on election night by career politicians with lucrative outside interests, and ask yourself: who are the real time-wasters? And who embodies the true spirit of democracy?

And if you have the good fortune to live in Eastleigh, I hope you’ll get out and vote for Ray Hall on Thursday. Victory to the Beer, Baccy and Scratchings party!

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