The 2017 general election – not all doom and gloom for minor parties

The recent general election was quickly categorised by the media as a bad one for minor parties. That was certainly the case for Ukip, which saw its vote collapse and its status decline from temporary major party back to minor. The Green Party’s voters also deserted en masse, lured by the siren call of Corbynism and so-called ‘tactical’ voting. Yet, tucked away in the small print of last week’s election results were a few that ought to give food for thought to those wanting to see more devolution/autonomy/independence for Cornwall.

Because it wasn’t all doom and gloom for minor parties. For instance, the 21 candidates of the Yorkshire Party doubled their average vote. Admittedly, that was from a very low base and it’s still pretty feeble at 2.1%. Moreover, none of their candidates saved their deposit with the highest vote (at Rotherham) being 3.8%. Nonetheless, put that in context. In almost half a century of fighting parliamentary elections MK has never achieved a median vote higher than 2.1%. In addition, it’s only taken the Yorkshire Party two elections and three years to almost match MK’s highest ever vote of 4%.

The Yorkshire Party now claims it’s the third party in Doncaster and Wakefield. In seven of the 19 constituencies where they encountered Lib Dem opposition, the party came out on top. They also beat the Greens in five of the 12 contests where both were present, although they were unable to edge out Ukip in the 10 constituencies where they came head to head. The party did relatively well in Richmond, North Yorkshire and Barnsley in South Yorkshire, two very different areas, while its worst results noticeably occurred in the cities – Leeds, Sheffield and Huddersfield.

Meanwhile, the North East Party in Northumberland and Durham has adopted (or been forced to adopt) a different strategy. Instead of standing candidates across Durham and Teesside as in 2015, it focused on fighting just one seat at Easington, which includes its power-base of Peterlee. This turned out to be a successful strategy as the party almost tripled its vote, scoring 6.5% and saving its deposit, a first for a regionalist/nationalist party outside Ireland, Scotland or Wales.

The election also saw a couple of other very creditable performances by Independents that are worth a mention. Jim Kenyon stood in Hereford and Herefordshire South and easily saved his deposit, gaining 11% of the vote and coming ahead of Lib Dem, Green and Ukip candidates. Kenyon, mayor of Hereford, is a well-known local councillor for It’s Our County (Herefordshire).

However, by far the most inspiring result was achieved by Claire Wright in East Devon. She increased her vote by 8,000 from 24% in 2015 to 36% this time, coming a clear second in a crowded field of seven candidates. Her key policy stance was a pledge to amend the National Planning Policy Framework so that it becomes less about growth and more about balanced communities. She backed this up by demanding more funding for local infrastructure, protection of the countryside and doing more to comply with climate change targets. She was supported by the progressive alliance locally and managed to do so well with a campaign team of just 12 and a fraction of the resources available to the sitting Tory MP.

Strong, localist campaigns for a more balanced approach to the environment and alternatives to the headlong rush to gobble up resources in the name of growth and greed can clearly resonate with voters. The relative success of these Independent candidates and the solid showing for the northern regionalist parties surely have some lessons for Cornish autonomists and nationalists. But will we bother to learn them?

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Our friends in the north: the Yorkshire Party and the North East Party

If we travel over the Tamar and hurry on as fast as possible through middle England until we get beyond the Trent, we’ll find a relatively new phenomenon. English political regionalism made its appearance at the 2014 European elections. By the following year’s general election it came in three guises. In Lancashire there was a Northern Party. In Yorkshire there was Yorkshire First and in Durham and Northumberland, the North East Party (NEP). While the Northern Party soon expired, the other two are on their way to establishing themselves as permanent and serious presences in the northern political landscape.

Yorkshire First, which stood 14 candidates for the 52 Yorkshire seats in 2015, underwent a re-branding exercise in 2016 and is now called The Yorkshire Party (YP). Although it has yet to gain a councillor at the upper tier of local government it scored a respectable 11% average in May’s local elections, when it stood seven candidates for the two authorities in Yorkshire which had elections. Its candidate for mayor of Doncaster also won 5% of the votes and saved his deposit – just! This built on the 19 candidates who stood in the metropolitan and unitary elections of 2015 and the 16 of 2016.

Like MK, the Yorkshire Party is a full member of the European Free Alliance and its policies place it firmly on the centre-left. It calls for a Parliament for Yorkshire elected by PR.

Unlike the Yorkshire Party, whose candidates have been scattered across the historic county of Yorkshire, the North East Party is focused on the Peterlee area of east Durham. To the outside observer the NEP looks to be less professional and more conservative than the YP. Yet it has achieved greater electoral success despite far fewer electoral interventions. The NEP only put one candidate forward in the local elections of 2015 and 2016 in Tyne and Wear. It didn’t fight the North Tyneside mayoral election this year and its plans to stand for the Tees Valley combined authority mayor were dashed when it could only raise £2,000 of the £5,000 required as a deposit. This extremely high amount was promptly denounced by the NEP as an ‘affront to democracy’.

Nonetheless, the NEP has built up a power base at Peterlee, having won a by-election there to obtain its first town councillor only months after its formation. This year it won 20 of the 22 seats on the town council. It also returned three councillors to Durham County Council, all of them also from the Peterlee district. Meanwhile, the median vote of its 14 candidates in the Durham unitary elections compared well with MK.

Median Vote at recent elections

2015 GE 2017 local elections
Yorkshire Party 1.0% 10.6%
North East Party 1.3% 20.8%
MK 1.7% 19.3%

The NEP’s aim is to replace the 12 local authorities in the north east with an elected regional government, while devolving local government to the town and parish level.

The difference in approach between the two parties is reflected in next month’s general election. The YP is fielding 21 candidates, a 50% increase on 2015. But tellingly, only three constituencies contested then are being contested again this time. Contrasting with this scatter-gun approach, the NEP has just one candidate, a reduction from the four last time. But their candidate is standing at Easington, the constituency that produced its best result in 2015 and the one that includes Peterlee.

This will be a difficult election for all fourth (and fifth and sixth etc.) parties, as the clarion call to ‘vote tactically’ blares out from the old ‘progressive’ non-alliance parties. But in regions with safe Labour majorities like the north-east and parts of Yorkshire it may be less relevant or effective. We shall see.

Minor parties and next week’s local elections

The London media seem to have largely forgotten about them in their eagerness to crown the May Queen but next week we have an actual vote to dissect rather than opinion polls. In four of the nations of the UK – rural England, Scotland, Wales and Cornwall – there are local elections on Thursday. Let’s look beyond the Westminster bubble to these more pressing elections. More specifically, what do the nominations at the locals tell us about the state of readiness of the byways of British politics, the margins, the extremes, the bizarre, those beyond the familiar be-suited landscape of the Westminster humbug centre?

Ukip is faltering. Their main policy objective apparently achieved and many of their policies now adopted by the Tories, they’ve lost direction. If the latest polls are anywhere near accurate, their support is collapsing fast. Ironically, Ukip, having set out to inject change into the political system, has served merely as a bridge from voting Labour to voting Conservative. The number of Ukip candidates in the local elections in England has fallen by a third since these seats were last fought in 2013, while their intervention in Scotland and Wales is feeble. We shall have to wait until May 4th, but it’s very likely that they will lose over half their current crop of councillors.

In terms of candidates, they’ve been overtaken by the Greens, who have increased their challenge at the coming local elections by almost 50%. With less to lose and everything to gain, they may come out of the local elections with increased morale. Nonetheless, this snap election will have caught local Green parties unawares. As a result they are most unlikely to contest anything like the 573 seats they did in the 2015 general election. Expect both Greens and Ukip to be nearer 300 than 500 candidates, with Ukip taking the opportunity not to challenge Brexit Tories and the Greens using the ‘progressive alliance’ as a cover for withdrawing from seats.

More generally, at the general election the broad pattern of growing numbers of minor party candidates since the 1980s, peaking in 2010, will be very abruptly reversed. Given the extremely short time to decide on candidates and raise the cash, plus the fact that parties are concentrating on the locals (something the May Queen no doubt took note of before making her decision) it’s likely that numbers will fall back from over 1,800 to under 1,000. The majority of those will be Ukip or Greens.

Few of the smaller parties are likely to put up as many candidates as last time. If the local elections are a guide, then TUSC numbers will fall dramatically, as the Socialist Party and its fellow travellers throw their limited weight behind Corbynite Labour. The state might not be withering away, but the left parties are. Respect has apparently disappeared, the Socialist Labour Party is disappearing, the Communist Party of Britain lingers on life support and the number of Scottish Socialist Party candidates in the local elections has halved since 2012. (Although Scottish Solidarity has increased its numbers to partially make up the deficit in Scotland.)

Meanwhile, on the far right, the BNP looks unlikely to rise from the dead any time soon, having watched both its electoral support and its activists being swept away in the Ukip tide. Ditto for the English Democrats. Between them, these two parties can only raise 15 candidates for the local elections, compared with 142 the last time around.

There are a few new kids on the block. The Scottish Libertarians are fielding 22 candidates in the local elections north of the border. The Womens’ Equality Party (WEP), with its celebrity supporters, is getting some media attention. But there are only three WEP candidates standing in the locals, plus another contesting the Liverpool City Region combined authority mayoral election.

Finally, the appearance of English regionalist parties in 2015 began to fill a gap hitherto only sporadically and quixotically occupied by the Wessex Regionalists. The Yorkshire Party is only standing two candidates for the 72 seats on North Yorkshire County Council. But its main support is in the urban areas of West and South Yorkshire, where there are no local elections this year, with the exception of Doncaster, which is out of sync. The party is putting forward five candidates there and fighting the Doncaster mayoral election. The North East Party is also building on the base established in 2015. It has 14 candidates competing for Durham’s 126 seats, someone up for the combined authority mayoral position in Tees Valley and a newly designed, more professional website. Nevertheless, it seems confined to south of the Tyne, with no candidates at all standing in Northumberland.

Nonetheless, both these parties will be hoping to make a breakthrough in the local elections and get their first elected councillor, something that would be a big boost to any general election exposure.