Independents' Day

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Judy Cox meets the others.

One sign of disillusion with the major parties is the growth of Respect. Another is the number of people standing as independent candidates. The most powerful example is the three high-profile anti-war campaigners challenging arch-warmongers in the general election. Rose Gentle and Reg Keys are backed by Military Families Against the War. Rose's son, Gordon, was killed in Iraq last summer. She is attracting wide support for her challenge to armed forces minister Adam Ingram in East Kilbride. Already the Scottish Socialist Party candidate and the Save Scottish Regiments candidate have stood down to back her. She says, 'I am calling on all those who oppose this war to unite behind me in sending a clear message to Tony Blair - end the occupation of Iraq and bring the troops home now.'

Reg Keys's 20-year son Tom was killed in Iraq in June 2003 in what his father has slammed as an 'illegal and immoral war'. The former ambulance driver's campaign is also attracting support. His agent, Bob Clay, is the former MP for Sunderland North. He is backed financially by musician Brian Eno and Martin Bell, the man in the white suit who defeated the discredited Tory Neil Hamilton when he stood as an independent in 2001.

Craig Murray is standing against foreign secretary Jack Straw in Blackburn. Craig Murray is the former ambassador to Uzbekistan where he says he saw how 'the "war on terror" is perverting this country'.

The rise of independent candidates in local and national elections was accelerated by anger over the war, but it predates the war. Health campaigner Dr Taylor took the parliamentary seat of Wyre Forest in 2001. Last year his Health Concern group took control of the local council with 26 seats. In 2002 four elections for local mayors were held. Only one, in Hackney, was won by a candidate from one of the traditional parties. The others, in Mansfield, Bedford and Stoke, were won by independents. Mike Wolfe, elected in Stoke, is a gay rights campaigner and an anti-racist. 1 May 2003 was dubbed 'independents' day' by the press - some 3,524 stood, up from 1,973 in 1999. In the 1970s up to 4,000 independent candidates regularly stood in elections. The number declined as many people dropped out of political activity during the dark days of Thatcherism, but is now reviving.

Today independent candidacies have been a powerful vehicle for opposition to the government by people who do not identify with any of the major parties. Last year a retired GP, Dr Jean Turner, won a seat in the Scottish Parliament from Labour, in an election which saw Labour's vote drop by a massive 20 percent. In last June's local elections Labour's majority in Barnsley council was cut to just three. Labour now has 33 seats, independents 22, Conservatives five and Lib Dem three. In Doncaster, Labour lost 18 seats to end up with 27. There are 14 independents, 13 Lib Dems and nine Tories.

The success of independent candidates is an expression of the widespread anger against traditional politics, but it is a limited form of protest. Independents can be of the anti-war left, but others come from the populist hard right. Those who restrict themselves to single issues can end up being manipulated by traditional parties. For example, Dr Taylor in Wyre Forest has been accused of being in the pocket of the Lib Dems. Those who have the greatest impact are those whose campaigns rise out of a mass movement and who, in turn, can strengthen that movement.