A few miles from the intersection of the M1 and M62 motorways, nestled in the quiet suburbs of Normanton, West Yorkshire, an unlikely revolutionary is hard at work. To an unsuspecting politician, Gareth Allen would pass for a typical swing voter – a prime target to bombard with party leaflets. He’s in his mid-thirties, politically unaffiliated, a family man with a steady, if unglamorous, career at Barclays bank.
The main parties should be fighting to capture his attention. Instead, plucky Allen has decided to fight the parties – all of them – and their billionaire donors and political machines.
Armed with his modest savings, a £400 war chest from a fundraising quiz night and three weeks’ holiday from the desk job, Allen is running for parliament as an independent. His aim: to topple Yvette Cooper, the work and pensions secretary and MP for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford. She holds one of the safest Labour seats.
It is an audacious political debut that, at this stage, has marginally less chance of electoral success than the Monster Raving Loony party. “My biggest problem is that there are 60,000 people in the constituency and only about 100 of them know I exist,” Allen told me with a laugh.
But, against the odds, something is driving Allen to part with a £500 deposit, his holiday in Majorca (a sore subject with his wife Pam), his evenings and his weekends, for an adventure on the political trail. “Unless something extraordinary happens, I realise I’m not going to win. But I’m not doing this as a gag,” he said. “I’m doing this seriously.” Watch your back, Yvette. The suburbs are rising.
Britain is rightly proud of its open democratic tradition. There are a few bureaucratic hurdles to standing for election (some signatures to gather and a deposit to put down). But every thoroughbred lunatic and crank is welcome. The longlist of magnificent no-hopers filling any by-election ballot paper is testament to the enduring strain of eccentricity in British politics. It began before Cromwell and will probably outlast Gordon Brown, the NHS and Big Ben.
But Allen’s escapade is a bit different. He is worryingly normal. He has no axe to grind, no burning grievance, no master plan for immigrants or UFOs. His main “bugbears” are anti-social behaviour, cutting spending too early and the far-right BNP. His website has policies on everything from Lords reform to polyclinics, alongside a blog where he “lets off steam”. He’s a one-man party for his local area.
To those sitting on the margins of British politics, Allen is a hopeful sign of things to come. Small parties and independent candidates think history is on their side. The power of the big two is waning: in 1951, more than 95 per cent of voters plumped for either Labour or the Conservatives; by 2005, the figure was below 70 per cent. Party membership, meanwhile, has plummeted to historic lows while public disenchantment has hit new highs. In this post-expenses-scandal election, more independent candidates are expected to stump up a deposit than ever before. There’s an unmistakable burst of activity on the edges of politics. Whether it will make any discernable difference is another matter.
When explaining why he is running, Allen borrows a phrase from his political hero Tony Benn: “If you don’t like the candidates in front of you, stand yourself.” The logic is clear enough, but why bother? Why make the sacrifices? “I haven’t got a neat answer,” he told me. “I guess because someone has to. I don’t want to bang on about MPs’ expenses but it shows how fed up people are with politics, politics with a capital P. My stand is to say don’t feel disengaged, do something.” Allen’s candidacy is both reassuring and worrying: reassuring in that the system allows him to stand; worrying in that he feels that he needs to.
There is barely a cause left that has not graced a British ballot paper. Within the past decade alone, candidates have run to protect the tax-free status of bars on boats (90 votes); promote all-night partying (135 votes); free themselves from Belmarsh prison (685 votes); introduce an Athenian democracy (500 votes); legalise prostitution (362 votes); outlaw the menace of pineapple toppings on pizza (411); and provide free breast implants (49 votes). One visionary even championed quantitative easing (94 votes), eight years before it began.
Candidates have polled as little as one vote. But many keep on plugging away. A few of the most persevering oddballs have almost attained the status of national treasure. A campaign rolls on to erect a statue of Screaming Lord Sutch, the late founder of the Official Monster Raving Loony party, outside Parliament.
And tributes are still paid to the godfather of single-issue politics, the legendary Commander Bill Boaks, a man who so hated cars that he stood in 40 elections and lost his deposit every time. The commander’s foolproof campaigning technique involved a bike and a tailored cardboard box daubed with anti-traffic slogans.
Yet there is a serious case to be made for the likes of Boaks and Lord Sutch. More people abstained in the 2005 general election than voted for Labour. For those who do bother to vote, candidates such as Boaks are a means of blowing a raspberry at the political classes. In the words of Lord Hodgson, politics is “too important to be left entirely to professionals”. Boaks, he said in a Lords debate, “performs a function not dissimilar to that of the medieval jester who could tell the King home truths”.
There is another breed of candidate, the angry kind, the victim of some outrage so heinous they launch a war on the political system. It can be an expensive business. In Robert Durward’s case, the spark was Gordon Brown’s “spiffing wheeze” to slap an environmental tax on quarries. Durward owns a quarry in Lanarkshire, Scotland; his response was to launch a new political party to oust Brown. In total, Durward has donated more than £500,000 to the cause. Did his family think his reaction was a bit over the top? “I think they’re getting used to me,” he said.
Durward is a plain-spoken man who went from cutting hedges and digging ditches to making a fortune selling red granite. He believes in flat taxes, hates regulation and doesn’t do things by half. His party launched with great fanfare: aircraft towing banners, full-page newspaper ads, the works. He put up 16 candidates for the 2003 Scottish parliamentary election as a first step; all of them lost (one even went missing before election day). It cost £24.47 per vote. But the renamed New Party goes on, in a slightly shrunken form. Its lone candidate in the 2010 election is an affable businessman called Richard Vass, who is running for North Ipswich and Central Suffolk.
“Unfortunately, we were seven years early,” says Durward. His convictions stand. But seeing all the money drain away was unpleasant, not least because his rightwing party was unfairly branded fascist (members didn’t realise that Oswald Mosley also started a New Party).
“It was educational, quite frankly. It was a bit embarrassing and damned expensive but we did learn a lot,” said Durward. “We’ll keep working away.” But Durward’s attentions have turned to another grand scheme. His latest project: setting up Owenstown, a new town of 20,000 people in Lanarkshire based on 19th-century co-operative principles.
Even independents are seeing the benefits of collective action. Somewhat against type, dozens are joining the Independent Network, backed by the likes of Martin Bell, the white knight of Tatton. There are no shared policies. But the network offers advice and confers a “quality check” on those signing up to a code of conduct. “We give candidates a sense of identity,” said Jim Thornton, one of the network organisers. “That’s the independent brand image we’re trying to create – a credible alternative to the major parties.”
Thornton is a genial, middle-aged property manager and Church of England reader, the kind of gentleman who relaxes in a blazer and slacks. There are, at first sight, few clues to his second life as a tireless insurrectionist. But over a cup of tea in his glass-fronted offices in Limehouse, east London, he methodically charted his journey from East Herts Tory councillor to prospective revolutionary.
The trigger was the handling of a scandal, long forgotten even in East Herts. But his critique of party politics has wider resonance. “You have a Hertford town council of 16 and they look after cemeteries and allotments,” he said, his voicing steadily rising in volume. “And then you invite people to make decisions on how their cemeteries are run on the basis of the Iraq war? It makes no sense at all.”
Thornton has already published a (limited circulation) book on his ill-fated attempt at storming East Herts Council with a band of independents, which doubles as a guide to getting elected. His latest foray is into the newly drawn-up Poplar and Limehouse constituency, where his father and grandfather once worked. There he’ll take on two sitting MPs, including the firebrand George Galloway. Thornton may finally have met his match.
Thornton’s dream is to balance better the role of an MP with the demands of their constituency. “We don’t do revolutions in England, we do things more incrementally. But we need to be asking questions of [the political traditionalist] Edmund Burke and whether 1774 really is 2010,” he said. “In this internet age, can our elected representatives really go off and say, ‘Well, I’m looking after the general good and this is what nanny has decided is good for you?’”
His point taps into an easily overlooked but fundamental change in British politics. Whereas 40 years ago, an MP’s time was mostly spent in parliament, today constituency work looms large. The MP is a social worker cum local shop steward. Thornton’s argument is that this change hasn’t gone far enough. Party dogma stops MPs from properly fighting for the constituency. They need to be independent.
But how far can this localism trend go? What will happen to parliamentary politics? Ruth Fox of the Hansard Society described one prospective candidate saying “if I get elected, I’m going to spend 90 per cent of my time in my constituency.” “It’s nonsensical,” she said. “I just thought, oh my goodness – either he or his electorate are going to be in for a shock.”
The beacon of hope for all independents is Richard Taylor, an easy-going doctor in the twilight of his career who tried to save a hospital and ended up winning a seat. His improbable 2001 victory in Wyre Forest is the stuff of political legend. His back garden doubled as a party conference venue; his spend per voter amounted to 17p versus a Tory outlay of £1.04. But he prevailed, winning a majority of 18,000. One observer who followed him on the campaign trail compared it to a hospital ward round – everyone knew him. “When I got in, I reckoned I would judge success [by whether] I could still walk around town and be greeted as a friend,” he told me. “And, thank goodness, I can.”
Since then he has been imparting advice to other hopefuls. At one Independent Network gathering he was delighted to find 40-odd “presentable, articulate, normal people” scribbling down his campaign tips. Hopes of a wave of independent victories have faded, however. Party leaders pre-empted voters by weeding out the worst expenses offenders. But Taylor is still optimistic. There’s a “surprise attack” afoot: some high-profile campaigners are going to target unpopular MPs in safe seats at the last moment. It is the equivalent of political blitzkrieg.
Taylor didn’t manage to save the hospital. But he was re-elected in 2005 and is running again, aged 75, although he’s “not confident at all” of victory. His main challenge is persuading people that independents can make a difference. A hung parliament or slim majority could make his vote much more powerful. But wouldn’t he just place the good of Wyre Forest over the good of the country? “I don’t think any of us would be swayed by the promise of something for our constituency,” he said. “That said, if somebody said, ‘I’ll build you a new hospital with an A&E and all the acute beds you need,’ I’d think pretty hard about it.”
Later in the conversation, Taylor pulled out his wallet to find a frayed note card with one of his favourite quotes from A.P. Herbert, an independent MP through the 1930s and 1940s: “On great occasions where the parties were furiously raging together, the votes of Independents (cast with, of course, more conscience) might be as straws in the wind and show the party leaders which way the pure air of free opinion blows.”
“I used it once in a Commons debate,” said Taylor as he looked up with a smile. “It went down like a lead balloon.”
Alex Barker is a political correspondent for the Financial Times
His last piece for the magazine was about Britain’s first female diplomats. Read it at www.ft.com/diplomats