I’ve been out on the campaign trail for the Economist for well over a month now, visiting Brighton, Buckingham, Bromsgrove and Luton, among others. What’s been striking in most of those seats is the disarray of the major parties. Some voters are angry, some are apathetic, but in almost all of these places I’ve heard people say to politicians: “you’re all crooks, anyway, I’m not going to vote for any of you.”
But there are positive signs, too, in the rise of the independents and minor parties: an indication, at least, of democratic renewal. In Buckingham, where the Speaker of the Commons is fighting for his seat, five right-wing candidates are standing against him—none of them, (because of protocol), from the mainstream parties. Oddly, at least in Buckingham, the two main contenders (Nigel Farage for UKIP, and John Stevens) are both fascinated by Europe: Farage is a famously anti-European MEP, and Stevens used to be a pro-European one. I asked both of them whether they were fighting a European election on British soil. They both laughed.
Whatever the truth of that particular battle, this election might see as many as 300 independent candidates standing, if not more—a greater number than in any recent election.
Martin Bell, the former independent MP for Tatton, is right to say that while a few will triumph at the polls, many will be disappointed. But the steady rise of the Other vote is remarkable: people voting for any party other than Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour now account for some 10 per cent of the electorate. We’re fed up, it seems, with what Tony Travers from the LSE calls a “two and a half party system”: the steady rise of the Greens on the one hand, and the BNP on the other, underlines this. Both parties have their best chance thus far of winning a parliamentary seat at the next election (though the smart money is on the Greens, rather than the BNP). Interestingly, the polls today suggest yet again that the Other vote is not being squeezed by the rise of the Liberal Democrats—instead, it’s the main two parties that are losing out. The Other voters seem to be pretty implacable about their choice.
So apathy or anger: which path will the electorate choose? My money is on anger—voting for anyone but the “crooks.” But apathy, particularly in seats where the only choice is between Conservative and Labour, will no doubt play its part too.