The three main political parties which dominate British politics, at all levels, face a continuing challenge from smaller political parties and independent candidates. Such alternatives to the main three parties, however, have been a long-standing feature of the political landscape at both national and local levels. Yet, little is known of the way in which smaller parties and independent politicians contribute to politics and government and the impact they have on the functioning of democracy and institutions' governance. Moreover there is an absence of a conceptual framework within which to assess and understand the world of small party and independent politics. The article, based on research funded by the Leverhulme Trust (grant F/094/AP), sets out such a framework from within which small party and independent politics can be considered and understood.


THE three main, national political parties (Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats) dominate British local and national political office. Yet, they face regular challenges from smaller parties and from Independent politicians, keen to enter the electoral fray and to seek and hold political office. Indeed, the competitors to the main three parties seek not only to provide the voter with alternatives at election time, but to influence the behaviour of the established parties; force a re-evaluation of the social and normative boundaries in a political system; expand the ideological boundaries of a political culture and redefine the left–right spectrum providing for a new form of political behaviour, different to that of the major parties.2

The 350 political parties, and other political organisations, registered with the Electoral Commission (June 2008) add a richness and depth to politics that has an impact on democracy and representation beyond the limited success they achieve at the ballot box—locally and nationally. The electoral impact of small parties, at least in terms of the crude measurement of seats won, is indeed limited at the national level. In the 2005 General Election, only one MP from a minor party in England was returned: George Galloway of the Respect Party. The only Independent MP elected for an English parliamentary seat in 2005, secured victory on the back of the success of a single-issue hospital campaign in Kidderminster; a campaign which resulted in the election of district and county councillors, before the eventual general election victory of Dr Richard Taylor.3 On the face of it, voters have, at least at the Parliamentary level, been recently disinclined to select alternatives to the main parties. In the 2005 General Election, parties and candidates, other than those of the main three parties (excluding the nationalist) secured only 1,522,827 votes; a 5.7 per cent vote share and an increase of 1.9 per cent on the 2001 General Election and electing only three members of Parliament outside the big three.

The picture at other levels is however much more varied. George Galloway's success in Bethnal Green was followed in the 2006 London borough elections by the Respect Party capturing twelve seats on Tower Hamlets council. At the same set of elections, the British National Party (BNP) was securing ten seats on nearby Barking and Dagenham council. The 2007 local elections in England saw small parties and independents receive 1,811,338 votes; a 16.1 per cent vote share. At the 2004 European Parliament elections, non-mainstream parties received some 5,483,907 votes; a 33.4 per cent vote share and an increase of 17.9 per cent on the previous European elections. That result delivered 14 MEPs: 12 UKIP and 2 Greens. One must be careful in making too bold conclusions from these figures because of differences between types of elections, changes in boundaries and voting systems between contests and differing levels of seat contestation across elections. But, two fairly safe statements can be made: first, that the three main British parties are the dominating factor in the political landscape, despite the range of choice available to the voter; and, second, that the level of election has an impact on the support small parties and independents can expect to achieve. What we also see here is that the term ‘small party’ is problematic and indeed, relative. UKIP's success at the European level may appear to move it out of the small party category, but, its performance is still dwarfed by that of the three main parties. The performance of what can be termed ‘small parties’ may be reflective of the second-order nature of European and local elections in the UK context. But, what is striking is that although small parties are more likely to have success in second-order elections, that success does not detract from the domination of politics in the UK by the main parties.

Despite the lack of Parliamentary success, the existence and activities of small parties outside of the main three and outside Westminster does offer alternative opportunities for citizen engagement and participation. Smaller parties can act to galvanise political opinion and activity that may be focused on a more precise set of political objectives than those of the big three; at the same time, smaller parties also construct a broad political platform across a range of issues, which however often reflect their basic concerns. Voters may support such parties because they consider the core-issue of that party of vital importance and are less concerned that other policy aspects are not fully developed. Parties such as the Greens, UKIP, the BNP and Respect are often popularly known and recognised for their focus on a specific political agenda and set of objectives; an agenda which then shines through the policies they develop on a wider range of issues. As a consequence, through such dual-process politics—a known focus on a single overriding issue, which is reflected in all other policy pronouncements across a broad policy platform—smaller parties produce new avenues for political accountability as they are able to focus on issues and cleavages either ignored or subsumed by the main parties. Thus, they provide some leeway for the realignment of issues as the main parties adapt their policy agenda to the newly emerging issues.

Small political parties and independent politicians serve to fill a gap in political representation; a gap which occurs because the mainstream, major national parties increasingly appear to fail to aggregate and represent adequately the diverse range of views and interests that make up the political dynamic at national, regional and local levels. For instance, in some cases small parties represent an opening up of new political space or of a new political agenda, or they may represent a post-modern, post-materialist form of politics, such as that regularly associated with Green parties. Alternatively, parties of the right have emerged, across Europe, with some having evolved from long-established right-wing parties; others being newer parties created as a response to globalism, new international governing institutions or multi-culturalism.4 Yet, such newly emerging alternatives often use similar tactics to the professional electoral machines of the main parties and we are left wondering if they offer only new policies, rather than a new approach, to politics. Alternatively, smaller parties may thrive on the popular appeal of a charismatic leadership and on its ability to develop policy-platforms that reflect popular—or populist—concerns5

By contrast, the main parties have been criticised for focusing their activities on office-seeking and holding office.6 They appear to place a premium on these activities over representing citizens and reflecting and responding to articulated political opinions and, as a consequence serve to reduce the space for political discourse.7 Indeed, the gradual disconnection of the citizen from the major parties, acts as a spur to small party and independent political activity, as well as to its growth.8 Thus, major party failure stimulates the development of small party and independent political alternatives from which the voter can select.

Understanding Small Parties, Political Associations and Independents in Local Politics

In recent years, small political parties have considerably increased their representation in British political institutions, particularly, but not exclusively, in local government. Such parties play a key role in setting the boundaries of debate through the often radical demands they make on the political system and by providing a ‘safety valve’ which allows political discontent to be addressed through electoral and other political activity.9 In addition, to their contribution to multi-level elections, by conducting a broad spectrum of political campaigning and organisational maintenance, small parties can galvanise local public opinion and act as a vehicle by which discontent can be signalled to political elites. In acting as channels of discontent, rather than as simple repositories for protest votes, small parties and independent politicians are able to shine a light on the failures of the main parties in responding to certain political concerns.

Lawson and Merkl relate the rise of ‘alternative organisations’ to just such a process of major party failure;10 a failure that is, to reflect or articulate matters which may be of importance to sections of the voters, but which are either too specific, or simply politically unacceptable, to the main parties. Moreover, political cartelisation, where the main parties collude (directly or indirectly) so as to converge around a set of policies, or become preoccupied with governing or office-seeking activities, has the effect of distancing or even removing major parties from the concerns of civil society.11 Where this occurs, small parties often step in to play a role in extending political debate, opening up space for political interaction and providing opportunities to articulate or spread previously unreflected views and opinions.12 The success of small parties can also be gauged by how the mainstream parties adapt and adopt elements of their minor counter-parts' policies and agenda, which in turn often impacts on the electoral support of the small party13. Small parties however, can of course be ignored or even vilified, such as in the response of the main parties to BNP successes.

Stimulating a reaction of any kind from any combination of the mainstream parties can nevertheless be seen as a mark of some success; when the main parties sit-up and take notice it displays the small party's impact on politics, political debate and agenda-setting. Indeed, small parties may benefit their cause, if not necessarily their electoral growth, by focusing on agenda-setting rather than office-seeking. Pedersen has suggested that in order to achieve an impact on politics, small parties must cross four ‘thresholds’:14 first, a declaration must be made that the party is about to contest elections, thus, entering the territory of the main parties—electoral space. Second, small parties must satisfy some nationally determined legal framework to secure authorisation as a party. In the case of the UK this authorisation is secured by registering with the Electoral Commission. Third, the party needs to secure representation in some level of representative institution. In the UK such representation is more often than not more easily secured locally, at the European level, or in one of the devolved institutions, than in the UK Parliament which has a less favourable electoral system than the devolved or European institutions. Finally, small parties must display some relevance, or impact on policy, decisions, or the conduct of politics. Indeed, if small parties can be either the subject of policy poaching by the main parties, or alternatively, simply ignored, they must constantly seek ways to remain politically relevant.

It is the notion of relevance that, as far as small parties are concerned, is contestable. Sartori saw this as a way of counting parties in a parliamentary arena for their coalition, or blackmail potential.15 Indeed, such a conception of relevance defines small parties by virtue of their applicability to a level of government, which, as with the UK Parliament, there may be severe institutional hurdles that are extremely difficult, but, not impossible, to overcome. Thus, relevance, so constructed, underestimates the impact of small parties in politics, and ignores differing notions of what is politically relevant. It particularly ignores differing degrees of relevance displayed by small parties in different levels of government or representative institutions.

Herzog challenges Sartori's notion of relevance and shows that small parties and others can have a different form of relevance to that of the major parties in any system. Herzog notes, for example, that a declaration of standing for election can influence the electoral behaviour of established parties, maybe forcing them to campaign in new ways, or at all, or to focus on different and emerging issues; that authorisation may force a re-evaluation of the social and normative boundaries in a political system; and, that electoral success and increased prominence can expand the ideological boundaries of a political culture and redefine the left–right spectrum, encouraging in the process policy-poaching by the main parties or a refocusing of attention on previously unreflected issues.16 Lucardie similarly suggests that it may be more appropriate to understand relevance in terms of a ‘mobilisation potential’, based on the ability to attract attention and challenge the party status quo, while also operating along new cleavages and expressing new political identities.17

Political relevance, thus defined, can be affected by the newness of a party, even if it does lack the organisational capacity to have an impact, particularly at the national level. The degree of relevance the smaller parties have becomes more evident by examining how small parties mobilise political opinion, articulate previously ignored opinions, attract attention from the public, media or other parties, focus on minor or minority interest and integrate core-policy objectives throughout all policy areas. Yet, a new approach to party relevance is still only part of the picture when assessing the impact of small parties (and independents) in politics.

A further step is to categorise and classify small parties. Smith, identified three types of small parties in competitive party systems; ‘detached’ parties, which operate outside of a traditional left–right axis; ‘marginal’ parties which operate at the fringes of the political system; and, ‘hinge’ parties which operate in the centre of politics and hold some coalition potential.18 Rochon, on the other hand, differentiates between new parties associated with traditional politics, and those with new politics such as Green Parties and post-materialist parties; such parties pose a fundamental challenge to contemporary political beliefs and policy, if not to the political system. ‘Challenger’ parties are those generally formed from party splits and contest ‘the legitimacy of existing parties on their own turf’.19

Small parties can also be understood by considering the degree to which they oppose the very nature and legitimacy of the political system (or political establishment) within which they operate.20 Alternatively, they can be considered for the level of support which they demonstrate for the ‘existing socio-economic order’;21 such support manifests itself in an acceptance of the political status quo.22 A difficulty emerges in assessing the effect of anti-systemness caused by the distinction between consequence and intention of action, policy or activity.23 Cappocia24 places most importance on the intention and distinguishes between typical anti-system parties (challenge democracy and polarise systems), polarising parties (do not challenge democracy but polarise systems), irrelevant anti-system parties (too small, too ephemeral and too short lived to have any real effects), accommodating anti-system parties (ideologically anti-system and large enough to have effects but choose not to) and compares them to typical pro-system parties (do not challenge democracy).

Alternatively, small parties, rather than being necessarily anti-system, can be system antagonistic, having ‘transformative goals’, being differentiated by the nature of their antagonism to the system, whether it is a ‘principle’ or an implementable ‘strategy’ that can be incorporated into their behaviour.25 The system antagonistic party is perceived to be representative of an imaginary sector of society which is the innocent victim of a ‘malicious rogue’, the ‘political class’.26 The links with populism are clear from this analysis. While Sartori27 considers the effect such parties have as an assessment of anti-systemness, for the small party in the UK, intention provides a better prism through which to understand the relationship between the party and the British political system; as small parties are often far from being able to effect any anti-system change.

Indeed, even when considering parties in multi-levels of government, the UK's unitary system prevents any effective anti-system outcome of political activity, unless a Westminster majority can be secured. The BNP, for example, where it holds council seats, is tied by anti-discrimination laws and equality responsibilities of UK councils; UKIP MEPs cannot force UK withdrawal from the EU. Thus, anti-systemsness, in the UK context at least, must be understood in a more sophisticated way than ‘effect’ alone and must take account for how small parties are able to demonstrate an antagonism towards the level of government within which they have representation apart from antagonism towards the system as a whole. Care must however be taken when assessing small parties against the criteria of anti-systemness so as not to confuse such with the normal politics of being a party of opposition: Are the UKIP anti-system because they seek withdrawal from the EU? Are the Green Party anti-system because they support non-violent direct action? Is anti-systemness simply a reflection of a perception that some parties just will not play by, or maintain, the rules of the game, e.g. the far-right or extreme left?

The fortunes of small parties are subject to the vagaries of a range of political opportunity structures which hinder or promote their growth and development: the existence of multi-levels of governance and representative institutions, electoral and party systems, institutional settings, organisational capabilities, ideology and policy emphases and the competitive party political environment and media skills in shaping public perceptions, all impact on the relevance, effectiveness, growth and life-span of small parties. Research has been able to identify the generalisable elements of the small party universe, but, as Deschouwer suggests ‘small’ when applied to political parties, has an individual meaning in each country. Moreover, analysis of political parties at various levels of politics requires different conceptual approaches.28 Finally, Smith emphasises the importance of country-specific factors in assessing small parties.29 Such classifications as have been displayed here, often tend to confuse ideological concerns with considerations of how close—or distant—a small party is from political power and ignore multi-level governance. Thus, we are left wondering if it is possible to construct a definition of small party (and independent politics) which encompasses all levels of governance. Are definitions of small party and independent politics context-specific in that they must reflect the level of politics in which the party is active; and, how can a party be defined if it controls a council, but has no MPs?

Small Parties and Independents in the UK

Much of our understanding of the small party universe comes from what have tended to be descriptive accounts of particular parties, such as the far-right, or the Greens.30 While such single party accounts are valuable in providing a rich source of material from which to understand the contribution and place in politics of specific parties, they do not provide a broad conceptual framework through which the organisation, activity and impact of small political parties can be understood. Indeed, what is required is a framework to assess and explore the contribution to politics of different types of organisations and independents, which allows us to understand the significance of national, regional and local conditions and issues as motivators to the development of alternatives to the main parties. Moreover, we need to understand how small parties and independents can generate and capitalise on a critical mass of political discontent or disconnection from the main parties and forge that into a basis for development.

Smith's idea of detached, marginal, and hinge parties do not help us fully understand the parties such as the Greens, BNP, Respect, and UKIP.31 While in the context of Parliamentary elections all parties outside of the main three can be described as somewhat on the margins, dismissing all other parties as lacking in any impact or consequence within broader political interactions—outside of Parliament—is to woefully underestimate their contribution to politics. These nationally organised parties cross the categories employed by Smith, particularly within the UK context and do so both nationally and locally: The Greens, BNP and Respect form the largest opposition group in Norwich, Barking and Dagenham and Tower Hamlets councils, respectively, and cannot be dismissed as marginal in these contexts. But, neither are they ‘challengers’ emerging from a major party split; they represent more a split in an ideological positioning on a left–right scale, rather than a spilt in any one party.32 While these parties may have the appearance of ‘mobilisers’, the cleavage lines they operate along are not necessarily new, nor are the political identities represented. Thus, to fully understand small parties in the UK context, we must reappraise what it is that enables such parties to claim relevance as they offer no ‘blackmail’ or ‘coalition’ potential.

To secure relevance, in the UK a small party must conform—locally and nationally—to some periodic activity and may benefit—in a sub-national context—from political circumstances to secure some level of electoral success.33 The Green Party's capture of three seats in the 2000 GLA elections; UKIP's two seats in 2004; and the BNP's one seat in 2008, cannot be dismissed as lacking relevance, or any effect beyond the GLA as a political institution. As noted above, seats are only one mark of success, and a rather blunt one at that. What small parties can achieve is the status of an opinion-former, that is, they campaign for political objectives and articulate political opinions that are marginalised or ignored as inconvenient by the major parties. But, relevance here rests on whether and how the main parties respond to the arrival and policy objectives of the smaller party—either indulging in policy-poaching, or, attaching pariah status to the new arrival. Thus, for a small party, to matter or to have some relevance occurs, in part, from a response by the mainstream parties to small party agendas. Two things occur when pariah parties, as the BNP, secure some level of electoral success: the main parties react disproportionately to the perceived threat; and, the small party (pariah or otherwise) causes introspective policy reassessment by the main parties, seeking to address the issues raised, and to assure voters that their concerns are recognised, that they need not support the small party.

Yet, beyond how the main parties respond to the electoral success of their smaller rivals, is how those smaller parties are able, in whatever level of political action or representative institution, to galvanise popular discontent with the main parties. In this role the small party brings forward issues that may have remained ignored and transforms those issues into a critical mass of political support—which may not result in electoral victory, but, which raises the importance of a particular policy issue or objective, placing it before a wider audience than had hitherto been the case. Or, making its articulation and consideration somewhat more acceptable to the main parties—whatever its source. In addition, smaller parties may—over time—radically transform attitudes towards particular issues, thereby forcing the main parties to policy-poach. While the Greens remain a small party on the national stage it is possible to say of the main three parties that they are all green now. Thus, relevance, for UK small parties is related more to policy-poaching than blackmail or coalition potential. Indeed, to members and activists of small parties, growth, success and impact may be measured by criteria such as saving a deposit, or beating other small parties' votes in a number of seats, in some Vauxhall conference league of political parties. For the small party in UK politics, relevance is not an evaluative criterion; rather it is a fluctuating part of the party life-cycle, as parties have lesser or greater success, depending on political circumstances, in galvanising and channelling opinion and articulating political preferences and thus impacting on the policies of the main three parties. Even if major party reaction is to denigrate a party's platform and policies (such as with the BNP), the mere recognition of the BNP and the over-reaction it stimulates from the major parties, is an indication of its relevance on the political stage, despite holding only 56 council seats (100 if parishes and community councils are included).

Independent politicians pose a somewhat different problem in contextualising and understanding the impact, or indeed relevance, that they have within a political system. Copus, Clark and Bottom in a study of independent councillors examined such politicians with reference to the nature of their political activity. They constructed a number of ideal types.34 The fully independent, is the politician who has no organisation behind him or her, save a group of friends, family, and well-wishers who do nothing more than conduct electioneering and, after the election have no say over the activities of that independent. The fully independent politician decides each issue before him or her without formal organised consultation with others (although informal discussions and interactions will occur as part of the dynamic of politics). The fully independent does not join, or take part in any formal group with fellow independents. Such politicians are however, not completely isolated, they interact with others in informal political and social settings and their views on political issues will in part be formed by such political interaction. The distinction here is between what takes place in a formalised political setting—such as a council or a Parliamentary group—and the casual interaction that all politicians will experience with each other. If an Independent takes no part in any formalised political grouping with other independents—save for what may be necessary, once a year to decide on the allocation of say, council committee positions—then he or she is fully independent. Once the politician meets in a regularised setting with other independents, he or she becomes conjoined.

With the conjoined independent, at least locally, an independent political organisation may exist, and acts as a loose co-ordinating body, which also has the political resource to secure the return of independent candidates. Such organisations are unlikely to demand that the politician demur to their views, being happy to see the politician elected, content in the knowledge that the election victory is sufficient influence in wider political settings. But, at whatever level of representative institution, from Parliament to council, once elected the conjoined independent acts in conjunction with other independents and forms an organisation around themselves within which they cohere to varying degrees. The label ‘Independent’ here, signifies ‘independence’ from a political party; it is a signal that the candidate represents a form of antidote to party politics, but, also accepts that some organisational form is required if Independent politicians are to have some success in any representative chamber. Some Independent council groups, for example, are almost indistinguishable in form to the political parties they eschew. It is the notion of organisational discipline that could be expected to distinguish Independents from party politicians, with Independents lacking any formal disciplinary mechanisms. Yet, for council Independent groups, discipline is often an informal process, where councillors demurring in public from the Independent group do not face official sanction. Rather, they may find support absent when it comes to re-election, face another Independent candidate or may not be supported for some piece of council patronage.

Then there is the revealed party-independent: the candidate who places ‘Independent’ before the label of a national political party: Independent Labour or Independent Conservative, for example. The emergence of such candidates often comes from an internal local party dispute or re-selection battle, such as with the all-female short-list imposed on the Blaenau Gwent constituency Labour Party which resulted in the Independent candidature of the, ultimately successful, Peter Law. Council chambers across the UK are dotted with revealed party-independent Conservative, Labour and even Liberal Democrat councillors

Independent politicians face a choice when it comes to conducting political activity that may lead to election and a further choice of how to act when conducting political activity after election. That choice indicates the degrees of independence they have and are able to express and the nature of the relationship they may have with a group of supporters at election time and other politicians after election. One thing is clear however, and that is that no Independent is an island; they are all subject to interaction with other politicians or with groups of supporters of one sort or another. The nature of political independence can only be understood by exploring the nature of the interactions had with other Independent politicians and how they act in politically representative chambers. Do they organise? What effect does that organisation have on Independent political activity? Do Independents that organise expect their fellow Independents to maintain a particular policy line, or support a particular decision? What happens when they do not? What sources of advice and information do they use? How carefully do they weigh up different opinions and sources of advice? What is their relationship with the political parties and party politicians with whom they interact? Do they really take each issue on merit? What relationship do they have with the voters: trustee, delegate or politico?35 It is through the answer to these questions that we can start to define the nature of Independent political activity and assess whether it generates a different political dynamic to that stimulated by large or small parties.


Whatever the nature or origins of smaller parties and whatever the motivation for Independent politicians in engaging in politics and seeking office, they offer a challenge to the dominance of the political landscape by the main parties. Independents and small parties provide two linked alternatives for the electorate. The label ‘Independent’ signifies a rejection of party politics, but a rejection tempered by the reality of life in a representative chamber where organisation and coherence is required, but comes at a premium: independence itself. The Independent may also be a prominent local individual who, while having his or her own political beliefs, finds the constraints of party discipline too restrictive. The small party may rage against big machine politics, but, are they simply smaller versions of the main parties? The small party has the onerous task of presenting an alternative approach to politics and policy and distancing themselves from traditional party politics but, at the same time, has to assume the form and also some of the behaviour of the main parties if they are to survive, particularly if they gain seats in a representative chamber.

What such alternatives to the big-three parties in British politics offer democracy and representation, how they conduct politics, act as channels for citizen engagement, provide a focus for citizen discontent with the political elite and galvanise, reflect and articulate previously ignored or marginalised political voices, were themes explored at the ‘First International Conference on Minor Parties, Independent Politicians, Voter Associations and Political Associations in Politics held at Birmingham University and jointly organised by the University of Birmingham, Queens University Belfast and University of Ghent, in late 2007. The papers that follow were presented at the conference and specifically address themselves to the issues raised by minor parties and Independents in a polity where mainstream parties still predominate.

Cowley and Stuart explore in detail the voting record of Independent MPs and set out the speedy maturation process required of the Independent in a House of Commons dominated by political parties. Russell and Sciara looks at how cross-benchers in the House of Lords have organised to conduct political activity in the upper-house. Both these papers throw interesting light on the vexed question of defining exactly what an Independent politician is, what he or she does and how and why they do it. But, we are still left with clearly defining and refining what we understand by the use of the term: Independent. Independent politicians will exist in different political institutions and at different levels of government. Thus, it can be safely assumed that they will display characteristics that are context specific, as well as common to the experiences of all Independents, within whatever representative institution they find themselves. Moreover, they may share some characteristics with small parties in that they may display relevance in either a Sartorian definition, or match the broader definition of political relevance set out in this paper. On the other hand, small parties in the UK may occasionally fit the classic definition of relevance; as Birch points out in her paper, the two Green members of the GLA in 2004 lent their support to Ken Livingstone, the then London Mayor, in passing his budget and in so doing accrued some additional political leverage. The anti-political establishment nature of UKIP is considered by Abedi and Lundberg in an exploration of the organisational challenges that face UKIP. In particular they consider what can happen to such parties when they experience sudden electoral success.

While politics at all levels in the UK are dominated by the main three parties, small parties and independent politicians have been a persistent challenger to those parties and have consistently offered the voter a choice beyond the mainstream. It is a choice that the voters have neither wholly rejected or fully embraced. The resignation of David Davis, the Conservative front-bencher, to fight a by-election on the issue of 42 days detention, resulted in 26 candidates—the largest number to stand in a by-election—presenting themselves to voters. Yet, 23 out of 26 of these candidates secured less than 5 per cent of the vote and lost their deposits. Indeed, the victorious Conservative candidates polled well over double the total number of votes received by all other 25 candidates.36 Yet, the continued perseverance of small parties and Independent politicians in offering a political choice beyond the mainstream parties and the occasional successes they have—some quite spectacular—indicates that they are a political phenomena in the UK, about which we need to know and understand more. The papers that follow provide just that.


Research for this paper was undertaken with the assistance of research grant F/094/AP ‘Small parties: Influence and effect on democratic engagement and local politics’ from the Leverhulme Trust. Colin Copus and Alistair Clark gratefully acknowledge this support and assistance. The ideas in this paper have previously been presented at PSA Annual Conference, University of Bath in April 2007 and the EPOP Conference at the Universities of Bristol/West England, September 2007. We are grateful to participants there, and at the ‘Politics beyond the Mainstream’ Conference at University of Birmingham in November 2007, for their comments and encouragement. We are especially grateful to Karin Bottom and Alison Crow for their contribution and assistance.
M. Pedersen, ‘Towards a New Typology of Party Lifespans and Minor Parties’, Scandinavian Political Studies, 5(1), 1982, 1–16; H. Herzog, ‘Minor Parties: The Relevancy Perspective’, Comparative Politics, 19(3), 1987, 317–29; A. Arian and M. Shamir, ‘The Primarily Political Functions of the left-Right Continuum’, Comparative Politics, 15, 1983, 139–58; M. Reiser, E. Holtmann (eds), Farewell to the Party Model? Independent Local Lists in East and West European Countries Urban and Regional Research International, Vol. 11, Verlag, 2008.
The Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties and the Northern Ireland parties are not considered small parties for the purpose of the research.
P. Ignazi, ‘The Silent Counter-Revolution: Hypotheses on the Emergence of Extreme Right-Wing Parties in Europe’, European Journal of Political Research, 22, (1), 1992, 3–34; P. Taggart, The New Populism and the New Politics: New Protest Parties in Sweden in a Comparative Perspective, MacMillan, 1996; C. Mudde, The Ideology of the Extreme Right, Manchester University Press, 2000; R. Eatwell, ‘The extreme right in Britain: the long road to modernisation’ in P. Eatwell and C. Mudde, (eds), Western Democracies and the extreme right challenge, Routledge, 2004, pp. 62–79; E. Carter, The Extreme Right in Western Europe: Success or Failure? Manchester University Press, 2005.
D. Albertazzi and D. McDonnell (eds), Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy, Macmillan, 2008.
A. Ware, Political Parties and Party Systems, Oxford University Press, 1996.
C. Copus, Party Politics and Local Government, Manchester University Press, 2004.
S. Wolinetz, ‘The Transformation of West European Party Systems’ in P. Mair (ed.), The West European Party System, Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. 218–31; S. Flanagan/R. Dalton, ‘Models of Change’ in P. Mair (ed.), The West European Party System, Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. 232–46.
H. Herzog, Minor Parties: The Relevancy Perspective, 1987; S.L. Fisher, ‘The “Decline of Parties” Thesis and the Role of Minor Parties’ in P.H. Merkl (ed.), Western European Party Systems, Free Press, 1980, pp. 609–13.
K. Lawson/P.H. Merkl (eds), ‘Alternative Organisations: Environmental, Supplementary, Communitarian and Antiauthoritarian’ in When Parties Fail: Emerging Alternative Organisations, Princeton University Press, 1988, pp. 3–12.
R.S. Katz/P. Mair, ‘Changing Models of Party Organization and Party Democracy: The Emergence of the Cartel Party’, Party Politics, 1(1), 1995, 5–28.
Herzog, 1987, 317.
For instance: D. Thranhardt, ‘The Political Uses of Xenophobia in England, France, and Germany’, Party Politics, 1(3), 1995, 323–45.
H. Pedersen, ‘Towards a new typology of party life spans and minor parties’, Scandinavian Political Studies, 5(1), 1982, 1–16; see also, J. Gerring, ‘Minor Parties in Plurality Electoral Systems’, Party Politics, 11(1), 2005, 79–107; S. Hug, ‘Studying the Electoral Success of New Political Parties: A Methodological Note’, Party Politics, 6(2), 2005, 187–97.
G. Sartori, Parties and Party Systems: A Framework for Analysis, Cambridge University Press, 1976.
H. Herzog, ‘Minor Parties: The Relevancy Perspective’, Comparative Politics, 19(3), 1987, 317–29; Arian and Shamir, 1983, 156.
P. Lucardie, ‘Fragments from the pillars: small parties in the Netherlands’ in F. Mueller-Rommel/G. Pridham (eds), Small Parties in Comparative and National Perspective, Newbury Park, SAGE, 1991, p. 123.
G. Smith, ‘In Search of Small Parties: Problems of Definition, Classification and Significance’ in F. Müller-Rommel/G. Pridham (eds), Small Parties in Western Europe: Comparative and National Perspective, Sage, 1991, pp. 23–40.
T.R. Rochon, ‘Mobilizers and Challengers: Towards a Theory of New Party Success’, International Political Science Review, 6, 1985, 419–39.
Sartori, Parties and Party System, 1976; A. Abedi, ‘Challenges to Established Parties: the Effects of Party System Features on the Electoral Fortunes of Anti-political Establishment Parties’, European Journal of Political Research, 41, 2002, 551–83.
Smith, 1987, 54.
A. Schedler, ‘Anti-Political-Establishment Parties’, Party Politics, 2(3), 1996, 291–312; C. Mudde, ‘The Paradox of the Anti-party Party’, Party Politics, 2(2), 1996b, 265–76; M. Keren, ‘Political Perfectionism and the ‘anti-system’ Party', Party Politics, 6(1), 2000, 107–16.
Keren, 2000.
G. Cappocia, ‘Anti-system Parties. A conceptual reassessment’, Journal of Theoretical Politics, 14(1), 2002, 25.
G. Smith, ‘Party and Protest: the Two Faces of Opposition in Western Europe’ in E. Kolinsky (ed.), Opposition in Western Europe, Croom Helm, 1987.
Keren, 2000, 108; Schedler, 1996, 293.
Sartori, 1976.
K. Deschower, ‘Small Parties in a Small Country: the Belgian Case’ in F. Müller-Rommel, G. Pridham (eds), Small Parties in Comparative and National Perspective, Newbury Park, SAGE, 1991, p. 135; see also P. Lucardie, ‘Fragments from the Pillars: Small Parties in the Netherlands’ in F. Mueller-Rommel/G. Pridham (eds), Small Parties in Western Europe: Comparative and National Perspectives, London, SAGE, 1991.
G. Smith, In Search of Small Parties, 1991.
I. Griffiths, ‘The Wales Green Party and the National Assembly of Wales Elections 2003’, Environmental Politics, 13(2), 2004, 461–6; D. Renton, ‘Examining the Success of the British National Party, 1999-2003’, Race and Class, 45, 2003.
G. Smith, In Search of Small Parties, 1991.
T.R. Rochon, Mobilizers and Challengers, 1985.
See C. Copus, ‘Party Politics and Local Government’, Manchester University Press, 2004, pp. 68–70.
C. Copus, A. Clark and K. Bottom, ‘Multi-Party Politics in England? Small Parties, Independents and Political Associations in English Local Politics’ in M. Reiser and E. Holtmann (eds), Farewell to the party Model? Independent Local Lists in Eastern and Western European Countries, Wiesbaden, VS Verlag, 2008, pp. 253–76.
H. Eulau, J. Whalke, W. Buchanan and L. Ferguson, ‘The Role of the Representative: Some Empirical Observations on the Theory of Edmund Burke’, American Political Science Review, 53, 1959, 742–56.