Last night’s result in Clacton demonstrated that the days of three-party exclusivity in England are over. But the occasional wildcard victory should not make us imagine that anything now goes in elections. There are ways of disrupting the established order, but the odds remain against the mavericks.
Only a handful of independent or minor party candidates have been elected since the 70s, despite a long term trend away from a two party system. The First Past the Post system isn’t particularly favourable for minor parties, and it’s hard to compete with the funding and organisational skills of the established Westminster parties.
The outsiders that have managed to overcome these challenges have tended to take advantage of at least one of the following three dynamics:
These days saying “MPs’ expenses” is still enough to rankle many voters. In the 90s it was “sleaze”. Martin Bell (and his signature white suit) rode a wave of anti-political feeling to win ultra-safe Conservative seat Tatton in 1997. In this instance, Bell was helped by Labour and the Lib Dems who withdrew their candidates to ensure maximum embarrassment for the Tories and incumbent MP Neil Hamilton.
Richard Taylor won Wyre Forest in 2001 and held it in 2005 for Independent Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern, campaigning on a single issue – the restoration of Kidderminster Hospital’s A&E department. Issues like this are clearly highly constituency-specific.
Profile and personality
Say what you want about George Galloway (and many do) but it can be hard to ignore him entirely. He has the distinction of beating Labour, his former party, twice as a Respect candidate. Boris Johnson is the kind of candidate that would have a decent chance of winning a seat as an independent too.
The UKIP victory owes something to all of these. But UKIP’s success probably in itself limits the chances of unconventional results next year.
UKIP has been sweeping up anti-Westminster votes since well before last year’s local elections, and while many of their voters know and agree with their policies, their recent run of by-election success shows they have built a powerful offer as a protest vote. Even Douglas Carswell, a Conservative MP for almost ten years, has vowed to fight the “Westminster party machine” following his election.
So what chance have the likes of the Citizens for Undead Rights and Equality* got of securing a seat this time around? If there happens to be a zombie outbreak in one of their target constituencies between now and the election, reasonably good.
But if not they may well find it’s UKIP that’s giving voters the most compelling reasons to opt out of the three party system – and maybe becoming part of the Westminster establishment in the process.
*who did actually stand in four constituencies in 2010
Explore the Road to the Manifestos – our guide to the people, processes and policies that matter in the lead up to the 2015 General Election.