Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Electoral Underdogs

A lot has been written about the big five parties in the Scottish elections: Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives and the Greens. But what about the minority parties and the independents? There are a considerable number of them standing across Scotland. Some of the candidates are well known names; a few might even get elected. Others will be lucky if their own families vote for them. Who are they, why do they do it, and what does their presence have to say about Scottish politics?

There are some names here that will be familiar to you no matter where you live. UKIP have a presence in Scotland, as do the BNP, though, ironically, both are frequently subject to aggressive suggestions that they should "go back to England" when on the campaign trail. Scotland has a Pirate Party which will be campaigning in the western part of the country, looking to secure support for a civil liberties agenda - it's unlikely that the marvellously named Finlay Archibald will actually be elected but a large Pirate vote could have an impact on decisions taken in the next Parliament by way of showing where public sympathies lie. In northern areas where voting Pirate is not an option, there's a Liberal Party (distinct from the LibDems) which offers traditional liberal policies together with a left-of-centre social agenda.

There is also a Scottish Communist Party, apparently enjoying a minor resurgence in support after the election of a right wing government at Westminster, but its focus in this election is primarily on campaigning against public service cuts - a practical way to use a minority voice in parliament, perhaps, but not distinctive enough as an agenda to give it much chance of getting one. Suffering from a similar problem are the Scottish Socialist Party and Socialist Party Scotland, the remnants of a group which enjoyed brief success in the early years of the Scottish parliament but has since fallen prey to infighting with sympathisers left unsure who to vote for. The iconic figure of Tommy Sheridan is, of course, absent from the fray this time, being detained at Her Majesty's pleasure following a high-profile perjury trial, but his Solidarity Party will be led by his wife Gail. Whatever you think of Tommy, he was always a fantastic orator; the missus may have the tan but she's shown little evidence of having the talent.

One thing that unites many of those on the left is George Galloway; there is massive opposition to voting for him. Galloway, who ousted Oona King in London with his Respect party and who will be standing on an anti-cuts, anti-war ticket, is widely regarded as a publicity-seeking opportunist more interested in satisfying his own ego than helping his constituents, and there are rumours of dodgy connections to the Iranian government. Galloway is, however, a colourful figure (the image of him wearing a leotard and pretending to be a cat is, once seen, distressingly difficult to erase from one's brain), and he's bound to attract sympathy from some.

In the other corner, with candidates standing across all eight Scottish regions, the Scottish Christian Party is presenting itself as a serious player, though polling figures do little to support this. Its slogan is 'Proclaiming Christ's Lordship', which you would think it could do without the need for seats in parliament, and its manifesto makes a lot of rather vague promises about Biblically-inspired policy (ignoring the fact that the Bible is frequently interpreted, by Christians, in very different ways). Its policies are a curious mixture of apparent concern about civil liberties with an aggressively punitive approach to tackling crime and passionate commitments to keeping the GMT time zone and protecting us all from the dangers of overgrown hedges. Meanwhile, the smaller Christian People's Alliance, which struggled to find candidates for the two regions it is contesting, wishes primarily to challenge the perceived creeping secularisation of Scotland, which it compares to the actions of the Taliban. It is also concerned about social justice issues, especially in relation to housing.

As you might expect, the issue of Scottish nationalism also attracts political forces from outside the mainstream, but you may wish to approach them with caution. Intensely pro-Scottish but anti-SNP, the Scottish Homeland Party seems to want to take advantage of desire for independence without directly addressing it. Its social policies may seem appealing to many and it explicitly bills itself as non-racist (perhaps a warning sign) but there are some unpleasant implications made about Muslims on its website - this would seem to be the non-inclusive form of nationalism with which outsiders sometimes inaccurately associate the SNP. Meanwhile, the Scottish Unionist Party is not only anti-independence but actively campaigns for the dissolution of the Scottish parliament, arguing that power should instead be distributed on a regional basis; it is standing in the central belt.

This leaves the one-candidate Land Party, whose main argument is for a Land Value Tax (also proposed by the Greens and increasing attracting support from economists); and the independents. Of these, Margo MacDonald, formerly of the SNP, looks likely to win her seat. Much-loved locally, she has been a strong advocate on feminist and disability issues, and though much of her work has been controversial she enjoys widespread respect even among her opponents. She's standing on the Lothian list alongside Merv Brown, a former soldier who has dedicated much of his life to working with homeless people and is standing an (another) anti-cuts agenda. Ken O'Neill, also on this list, says he's standing on a distinctly different ticket, but it seems to be much the same thing; what distinguishes him is his determination to promote the Lothians, which would presumably mean more centralisation in Edinburgh.

On the Central list, Hugh O'Donnell combines a pro-business agenda with a strong commitment on access to education and an interest in disability issues; his manifesto is laid out in an unusually sober way for an independent and it's difficult to see why he isn't standing with a party, giving him some real chance of success, though perhaps his principles get in the way of that. Glaswegians have the option of voting for Caroline Johnstone, who shares Labour's concerns about knife crime but is considerable to the right when it comes to more general criminal justice issues. Her policies on business and education are determined but vague and she combines concern for the disabled, carers and the elderly with a populist commitment to tackling those nasty welfare scroungers (how she would identify them is not covered). Finally, on the West of Scotland list, there's Richard Vassie, who thinks education and employment and the NHS are important (hands up if you don't) but who doesn't seem to have any actual policies, laying out his website as if he's applying for an ordinary managerial job.

There are also several independent candidates standing in constituencies. I hesitate to name all of these because, whilst it's always entertaining to laugh at bizarre policies which have no chance of becoming law, I get the impression that some of them might actually be mentally ill. The system of deposits in elections was established to discourage people from standing on a trivial basis but, of course, it doesn't discourage obsessives whose commitment to their delusions is so intense that they are ready to dedicate all their resources to doing what they believe is the right thing.

Some independents, however, may be worth considering, depending on your individual concerns. George Rice is standing in Dumbarton defend the Vale of Level hospital; he acknowledges that he doesn't have much experience but he is educated and seems to have thought about things. Marie Boulton in Aberdeen South & North Kincardine and Alan Haigh in Midlothian North and Musselburgh both have fairly well thought-out policies across a range of issues and are standing because they feel established politicians have been letting people down. And Billy Fox in the Shetland Islands has no manifesto as such but is standing on a locally-focused environmentalist ticket. All sound reasons or raising an independent voice, even if they're unlikely to be heard by many.

Their chances, however, are significantly better than they would be if they were standing at Westminster. Scotland's proportional electoral system makes it much easier for smaller parties, and even individuals, to influence politics, as the Scottish Greens have demonstrated. This has yet to lead to any of the tyranny-of-the-minority desperate deal-brokering that seems to feature prominently in the nightmare of those who dislike proportional representation, but it has broadened the dialogue that goes on across our nation, enriching the debate. The obviously delusional candidates don't tend to get very far. Unlike Westminster, our parliament has yet to include a member who believes that blood won't clot at the full moon.

Scottish politics, for all its disparate voices, is much more about cooperation and working together for the good of the country than Westminster tends to be. That may not be apparent during the current fury of electoral sparring, but things will settle down soon enough, and we're likely to see a minority government which, with the support of smaller parties, can still take our country forward. As a diverse country, we should celebrate the enthusiasm of the small parties and independents, even if some among them might inspire us to bang our heads off walls. They are, after all, illustrative of a level of interest in politics that is vital to a truly health democracy.

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