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Last Updated: Sunday, 17 April, 2005, 11:36 GMT 12:36 UK
Ringing a Bell for change
FEATURE
by Jackie Storer
BBC News political reporter

Martin Bell - the country's best known Independent politician - makes fighting the traditional three-party system on your own sound easy.

"You just need three things," he says. "One is a good cause, the other is a well known candidate, and the last one is a vulnerable incumbent."

Martin Bell with independent candidate Reg Keys
Mr Bell says it is a good time to be an independent candidate

It is this advice, plus the benefit of his four years experience as Tatton's MP, that Mr Bell is giving a small army of independents who are standing on 5 May.

More than a dozen hardy souls will face the polls alone at this election. All lack the clout and finances of the party system, but most are driven by a determination to change the status quo.

Mr Bell, who seized the Tatton seat from disgraced Conservative former minister Neil Hamilton in 1997, says a growing disillusionment with party politics is behind the independent movement.

"It is a good time to be standing as an independent candidate," he says.

'Single issue' candidate?

However, this sentiment comes with something of a health warning.

"You can't just do it on your own with a few mates - it needs many people on the ground," says Mr Bell.

I think the voters have the right to know what stand you take beyond the issue that propelled you into politics
Martin Bell

"You have to be able to compete with the main political parties - they have the advantage of party political broadcasts and party machines.

"You need to know how to deal with the accusation of being a single issue candidate. Some of them are, some of them aren't. When you are at Westminster you become a multi-issue MP.

"Once I got there I did a lot on defence. I think the voters have the right to know what stand you take beyond the issue that propelled you into politics."

Among those receiving Mr Bell's support is Stewart Rickersey, a publisher for 30 years and now a producer of television travel programmes.

Adversarial politics

Married to Sharon, with four grown up children, Mr Rickersey, 54, is standing against Labour candidate Alan Meale in the mining town of Mansfield, Nottinghamshire.

He decided to enter the political fray because he was "fed up with the party political system".

Stewart Rickersey
Mr Rickersey says he wants to be the people's delegate

It also followed a referendum three years ago which resulted in an elected independent mayor for Mansfield, and independents taking control of the local council a year later.

"I have never been a member of a political party, but I think it's time for a different sort of politics," said Mr Rickersey.

"This form of adversarial politics is frankly why there is so much apathy - the apathy is not with politics, it's apathy with this sort of daft thing."

And Mr Rickersey reckons he has come up with something of an original way of winning over the electorate - by becoming Mansfield's delegate.

In touch

"If I am elected I'm going to vote in Parliament the way Mansfield's population direct me to vote.

"We will set up a community voting system and people will be able to text, email, phone, write letters, or call their local radio station to let me know their opinions.

"We will use this on all the key issues, like Iraq, abortion, that sort of thing.

"All of those opinions will be aggregated into an over all decision."

Mr Rickersey says he believes the technical wizardry to achieve this could be in place within three months of his election.

Special interest groups

"I will do exactly what people want me to do, no matter what my personal opinion is," he insists.

"I will vote with the government sometimes, and against the government at other times.

"I think people will actually take the trouble to express a view."

People in the UK are feeling increasingly engaged about issues that most affect their everyday lives
Peter Wardle
Electoral Commission

Mr Rickersey says his campaign is being funded largely by local businesses, local people and from other political parties.

His support is coming from the 25 independents on the local council, plus Mr Bell, who is joining him on the canvassing trail.

According to the Electoral Commission, 61 new parties registered in 2004 - a rise of 13% over the previous year. Almost half of these new parties represent special interest groups or those campaigning on single issues.

Electoral Commission chief executive Peter Wardle said: "This growth in political party registration provides a positive indication of the health of our democracy.

"The rate and rise of single issue parties in particular suggests that far from being a nation plagued by political apathy, people in the UK are feeling increasingly engaged about issues that most affect their everyday lives."

Hospital campaign

Another independent benefiting from Mr Bell's experience is Reg Keys, the father of a soldier killed in Iraq. He is standing against Tony Blair in the Labour leader's Sedgefield constituency.

Mr Keys' son, Lance Corporal Tom Keys, 20, from north Wales, was one of six Red Caps killed by a mob in June 2003.

But the 52-year-old, a founder member of campaign group Military Families Against the War, faces an uphill task to unseat Mr Blair, who had a majority of more than 17,000 at the 2001 election.

Mr Bell is also helping Kate Allsop, an independent, standing in Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon's Ashfield constituency.

And the man famed for his white suit is on hand to give a boost to the campaign of Dr Richard Taylor.

He won Wyre Forest as an independent in 2001 on a single issue - to save Kidderminster Hospital.



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