Parties fear the K-factor

Observations on independent electoral candidates

When the Lord Chancellor used to think about single-issue pressure groups, some surprisingly beatnik images came to his mind: "sit-down protests, young people who chain themselves to earth-moving equipment; or throw paint at government buildings". We know because he said so in a speech entitled "Creating a nation of real citizens" in 1998. I am sure that, having bashed out this speech, Lord Irvine of Lairg smiled knowingly, reflecting on the rashness of youth. Politics is a grown-up business.

Three years later, it seemed that the single-issue pressure groups had grown up, too: m'lud's very own junior minister David Lock was defeated in the 2001 general election for the Wyre Forest seat by Dr Richard Taylor, a mild yet collected gentleman who had a single-issue crusade - to save his local hospital. Today, Independent Kidderminster Hospital and Health Concern has 21 seats on the district council, six county councillors and a fair spread in two adjoining boroughs.

In short, Kidderminster Health Concern is changing the face of political participation, and its 2003 conference could not be more apposite. It came three days after the largest public protest march in British history, and five days after Alan Milburn called for the NHS to abandon the "big is beautiful" philosophy that has forced closure of scores of small local hospitals, and hence the genesis of Health Concern.

Far from being a typical "party conference", this event was a chance for prospective independent candidates from all over the UK to share their experiences of fighting the three-party system and holding local and national government to account. Roughly 100 delegates were present, including councillors from as far north as Glasgow and as far south as Somerset.

Delegates included the independent politician's standard bearer, Martin Bell, and Jean Turner, a Glasgow GP who fought the closure of the Stobhill Hospital in 2001. Turner stood as an independent for the seat in the Scottish Parliament vacated by Sam Galbraith, a former minister - she came a close second, and cut Labour's majority by 16 per cent.

Every delegate shared a real passion for fighting for their hospitals and schools and for greater transparency in government. Most remarkable, however, was the age of the delegates: these are not latter-day Swampys - bohemian twentysomethings - but late-middle-aged people with families and jobs. Their message was clear: "When people feel their interests are being disregarded and their elected representatives are falling short, their prime weapon in a democracy is the ballot box."

Malcolm Cooper, vice-chairman of Health Concern, explained to me with some delight that a memo was sent round to all new Labour's constituencies asking them for ideas on how to prevent another "Kidderminster scenario" - a phrase abbreviated to the K-factor.

All the new Labour constituencies are trying to replicate this K-factor, and by doing so, they are causing the political mainstream some inconvenience. Liz Davies, the chair of a discussion on the role of independent representatives, explained why: "The party machine does not know how to deal with us."

There is something intuitively satisfying to anyone with a democratic streak in hearing these people enthuse about changing their communities for the better.

The BNP's recent success in the Calder-dale council by-election is but one symptom of the failure of mainstream political parties to engage voters. There are also signs that organised constituency groups are beginning to reflect the wishes of people better than the three national parties. Dr Taylor announced that, according to the electoral register, voter turnout has risen since Health Concern entered local government. In fact, around 2,000 local councillors in the UK are not members of the big three political parties.

The inclusive concept of big-tent politics propounded at the birth of the new Labour project has fallen in around the government's ears. Might it fall to the K-factor to put an end to government by "bread and circuses"?