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Friday, 3 May, 2002, 13:05 GMT 14:05 UK
Turned off by the status quo
Bananas placed on the name tag of Hartlepool's mayor Stuart Drummond, aka H'Angus the Monkey
Hartlepool's mayor is "a monkey"

If you told it down the pub, it would sound like the beginnings of a bad joke.

What do a monkey, a far right party, a group protesting about the downgrading of a hospital and a bunch of residents have in common?

The main parties in Britain are losing some of their grip on the electorate

Prof John Curtis
Strathclyde University

The answer: All were elected during 2 May's local elections.

H'Angus the football team monkey mascot, alias Stuart Drummond, is now mayor of Hartlepool.

The residents of Elmbridge, who have gathered together to protest against development in their town, have won overall control of their borough council.

Disillusioned electorate?

The BNP has three seats in Burnley, while the independent Kidderminster Hospital/Health Concern - which successfully fielded retired NHS consultant Dr Richard Taylor to the House of Commons as MP - now holds the majority in Wyre Forest.

Meanwhile, the Local Education Action by Parents party (Leap) has won a council seat at the Labour-controlled London borough of Lewisham.

The group is demanding a new non-selective school to relieve the shortage of places in the north of the borough.

Professor John Curtis, Strathclyde University
Prof Curtis: Mainstream parties are losing grip of the electorate

So what has turned ordinary people away from the country's three mainstream political parties to look for representation from extremists or single issue groups?

Could it be the perception that there is seemingly little ideological difference between Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats?

Is it complete disillusionment with the system, or a lack of trust in our elected representatives?

Fringe benefits

Commentators believe that the need to vote for "anything other" than the mainstream is in part a protest at the status quo.

It could also be that an apathetic electorate almost needs to be shocked into being bothered to vote or perhaps it shows that the public has a sense of humour.

The only conclusion Professor John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, can make is "the main parties in Britain are losing some of their grip on the electorate".

A gorilla and Stuart Drummond
'Monkey" mayor Stuart Drummond walks with a rival in Hartlepool

"Frankly, all the so-called fringe candidates have done relatively well," he said.

"Behind the headlines the Greens did rather well. They got 7% of the vote everywhere they stood. The far left did relatively well."

Prof Curtice is circumspect about the fact that a man dressed as a monkey is now mayor of Hartlepool.

'Normal guy'

"They [ministers] have rather handed power on a plate to their opponent by putting forward this new proposal," he told BBC News 24.

Hartlepool's new mayor Mr Drummond, 28, suggests that it was almost necessary to make himself absurdly different, by dressing in a monkey suit, just to attract voters' attention.

I have been using the monkey to promote myself, promote my campaign

Stuart Drummond
Mayor of Hartlepool

He also argued that it was important to be perceived as independent and representative of the electorate's views.

"I am just a normal guy off the street, listening to the views of the public and I am the voice of the public," he said.

"I haven't got a big party backing me and I have been using the monkey to promote myself, promote my campaign.

No joke

"I haven't tried to make a mockery of anybody - I believe that the mayor should be independent, as I am.

"Over 60% of the vote was for an independent, so the public obviously believes that as well. It is just going to be a positive step forward for Hartlepool," he told BBC News 24.

But Labour former minister Peter Mandelson, MP for Hartlepool, warns that the electorate will treat the process as a joke or a protest if they cannot see that power is being invested locally in mayors and regional authorities, when they are created.

Dr Taylor suggests support for the Kidderminster Hospital/Health Concern campaign was not "single issue" politics.

Serious situation

He said the group's success was down to the fact there is a wider problem of small district hospitals under threat.

Dr Taylor caused one of the biggest upsets of the 2001 General Election when he beat David Lock, a junior minister in the Lord Chancellor's department, by a majority of 17,630.

He said: "Certainly [there is] greater awareness of the problem; awareness that it isn't only a local problem, that there are a lot of smaller district general hospitals throughout the country that will be coming under threat because of shortages of staff."

Gordon Chubb, a member of one of the residents' groups in Elmbridge, says the reason for his involvement in local politics is quite simple: "If you are not in the council to bang the table you can write as many letters as you like - unless you are there you cannot do anything."

Whatever the reasons why voters decided to put their cross by the bizarre, the unknown and the extreme, the all three main political parties should take the situation seriously.

When pictures of the 'monkey man' have faded and the wry smiles at doing over the establishment have disappeared, the electorate has to accept its choice, which in reality might not seem so funny.

Stuart Drummond
"I'm very serious"
Mayor of Hartlepool Stuart Drummond
"I have used the monkey solely for promotional purposes"

Key stories




See also:

04 Apr 02 | England
03 May 02 | UK Politics
03 May 02 | UK Politics
03 May 02 | Vote2002
03 May 02 | UK Education
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