Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Norwich North: What hope for minor candidates?

The by-election in Norwich North has come and gone. The LPUK candidate, Mr Thomas Burridge, got 36 votes, which was generally regarded as not very good, considering that 34,377 people voted. There was considerable sadness and soul searching among members of the Libertarian Party, as we asked “Why did people not vote for our candidate?”

Of course, we were not the only people to ask that question, since some other candidates and parties did not do as well as hoped. Mr. Craig Murray, who stood under the label “Put an honest man into Parliament”. Mr Murray received 2.77% of the vote - compared to the 4.98% he received in Blackburn in the 2005 general election. He subsequently wrote a fascinating piece in the Mail about his campaign, and why he believes it failed to win over the voters. Key lines are “Media access was our biggest problem,” “When Stuart eventually got back from holiday, he found 27 separate Tory leaflets waiting for him,” and “The public were in no mood to view anybody's material.” He speaks of being “crushed by the party machines.” And he notes that “the combined vote of the three main parties fell from 42,000 to 23,000.”

So - what are the prospects for candidates like Messers Burridge and Murray?

My reckoning is that they face two big problems. The first is that the average Briton is not actually very interested in politics, and may be becoming less so. In fact, if you go round door-knocking for a political candidate, many people will be no more interested in your message than they would be in the message of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yes, the majority do vote in general elections, but that is about it. Only about half vote in by-elections, and fewer still vote in council elections or European elections. How can you interest people in a new political movement if they are not even interested in politics?

The second is that the average voter will probably not give serious consideration to anyone other than the Labour and Conservative candidates. We always get Labour or Conservative governments, so it stands to reason that all other votes are pretty much wasted. Of course, there are areas where the LibDems have a strong local base, and may routinely come second or even first, and in those areas, things are different. Similarly, in Scotland, the SNP routinely comes second or even first in may areas, and the same could also be said of Plaid Cymru in Wales. (Northern Ireland, needless to say, is a rather different political animal.)

So - is there any hope for minor parties and independents?

Yes. Some voters are prepared to vote for minor parties. However, they have to be not only disillusioned with the main parties, but also fairly familiar with the minority party they are voting for. The Greens, UKIP, and the BNP are well known, because they have been around for a while and have a clear simple message. In fact, in the Norwich North by-election, the 3 main parties only got 71.7% of the vote, as compared to 94.3% at the 2005 General Election. UKIP and the Greens both had a substantially increased share of the vote, and UKIP managed that despite relatively little media attention. After all, they have been around for 15 years, and have had a reasonable amount of media attention over that time. And they have fought several parliamentary, council, and European elections in Norwich. Mr. Murray and LPUK were completely new to the voters of Norwich.

Independents and minor parties do well out of single issue voters, who will vote for just about anybody if that person campaigns or takes the right view of that issue. This is crucial for UKIP, the Greens and the BNP. It is hardly surprising that they do well, because British independence, the environment, and immigration are all important matters, and most people recognise that. On other issues, such as abortion and legalising cannabis single issue candidates have the potential to get a lot more votes than LPUK did in Norwich North - but they are unlikely ever to get more than 2% of the vote - and hence will remain permanently on the fringes.

A different, but closely related phenomenon, is the success of Richard Taylor, the local hospital candidate in Wyre Forest, or Martin Bell in Tatton. Just occasionally, a single issue can be something that strikes a chord with large numbers of voters. But what is notable in these two seats is that the LibDems stood aside in Wyre Forest, and both Labour and the LibDems stood aside in Tatton. That provided massive credibility for the independent candidates, and is something that is not going to be repeated very often.

So Norwich North does offer hope for minor candidates. UKIP and the Greens posted their best ever parliamentary election results, and were not far behind the LibDems. In other words, they could be on the verge of a breakthrough - though they probably are not.

It will take many years of work before the Libertarian Party becomes well enough known to the voters to be seriously considered by more than a few hundred - or even dozen - voters in a parliamentary constituency.

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