The unstoppable rise of independent political candidates

The number of independent candidates has more than doubled since the last general election. As support dwindles for the two major parties, it seems voters are ready for alternatives.

The first thing that struck me,” says Andrew Feinstein, who is standing as an independent candidate against Keir Starmer in the constituency of Holborn and St Pancras, is that people are so desperate for someone to listen to them.”

Feinstein, who has lived in Holborn for 23 years, is eccentric in the sense that he speaks with conviction, and has a relaxed informality uncommon in mainstream politicians. While his odds for winning the seat are considerably lower than the Labour leader, his opponent isn’t taking any chances: Labour is ploughing more money into digital advertising in Holborn and St Pancras than any other constituency.

The 60-year-old is one of the 459 independent candidates standing in this year’s election, a figure that has more than doubled since 2019 and accounts for 10 per cent of all candidates. This year, the Conservatives and Labour appear to be set for the lowest combined vote share since 1945. But among the dwindling enthusiasm and widespread disillusionment with mainstream party politics, voters seem to be craving something different.

I decided to stand because I’m really angry,” says Fiona Lali, 26, who made the decision to run as an independent for Stratford and Bow shortly after Rishi Sunak announced the general election. I think there’s a complete vacuum in mainstream politics in terms of what people actually feel and how that’s expressed.”

Lali is a former Labour member who was expelled when Keir Starmer became leader. Several of this year’s most popular independent candidates have similar backgrounds. Feinstein was a Labour member who, following a career in South Africa serving as an MP for Nelson Mandela, endorsed Jeremy Corbyn in the 2019 election. Corbyn himself is running as an independent in Islington North, a seat he has retained for 41 years. Faiza Shaheen is standing as an independent for Chingford and Woodford Green, after she was blocked via email from standing as Labour’s parliamentary candidate.

Part of the dominant parties’ declining vote share, then, can be attributed to growing anger towards the Labour Party, whose position on Israel and Gaza, and treatment of people of colour, notably the row over the suspension of Diane Abbott, has made some lose faith in the party, or feel pushed out altogether. The party attributed the decision to block Shaheen from standing to a series of 14 tweets over 10 years, including liking posts that allegedly downplayed anti-Semitic accusations and advocated for boycotts of Israeli goods, as well as one tweet congratulating a former colleague who had decided to stand as a Green councillor. In a statement, Shaheen said she had experienced unfair treatment, bullying and hostility” within the party, with her paid organiser support being stripped away when she was seven months pregnant.

The treatment of Shaheen comes off the back of a string of behaviour that’s out-of-step with what people have traditionally considered the party to endorse. In May, Shadow Foreign Secretary and longtime Labour member David Lammy attended a meeting with Republican Party activists, describing himself as a small‑c Conservative”. Three Conservative MPs – Natalie Elphicke, Dan Poulter and Christian Wakeford – have defected to the Labour Party. And two weeks ago, Starmer himself accused Sunak of having a Jeremy Corbyn-style manifesto” – a manifesto he seemed to support when campaigning in 2019.

The Tories – and now Labour – care more about big business profits than they do the lives of Palestinians and working class people here in Britain”


Now, frustrated by party interests absorbing those of the public, independent candidates are fighting for an alternative. The Tories – and now Labour – care more about big business profits than they do the lives of Palestinians and working class people here in Britain, so they don’t represent us at all,” Lali says. And I think all of that anger in society needs to be represented at this election”. As well as calling for an immediate ceasefire, Lali is also campaigning for more action on the climate emergency and affordable housing. Leanne Mohamad, a 23-year-old British Palestinian woman and another former Labour member, has similar motivations for standing as an independent in Ilford North.

I don’t think the establishment realise how hated the party has become among the people who used to typically vote for Labour, and it’s because they’ve taken people for granted,” Lali continues. In February, a poll by Survation for the Labour Muslim Network indicated the party had lost more than a quarter of its Muslim voter base who supported the party at the 2019 general election. The betrayal of the Labour Party on Palestine is absolutely key, but it’s also their promise to continue austerity,” Lali says, referring to promises to not increase taxes on large corporations or the wealthy and stick to Conservative fiscal rules.

When Labour released its manifesto earlier this month, for instance, it was heavily branded as ambitious”, containing policies that, they claimed, would bring about a decade of renewal”. But Feinstein isn’t convinced. Starmer claimed to introduce a manifesto of change, which, as usual, is exactly the opposite of that,” he says. With no further spending planned, left-wing economic think-tank Resolution Foundation has even indicated that the manifesto would pave the way for five years of tax rises and further spending cuts. Feinstein’s anger is palpable. It does nothing for working people,” he says. Their commitment to workers’ rights is so weak that Unite – a trade union affiliated with the bloody Labour Party itself – refused to endorse the manifesto.”

But the lack of innovation in the party’s manifesto speaks to a wider point about growing voter frustration with two parties that are ultimately failing to grasp the public mood. And while issues such as the Israel-Gaza conflict have isolated specific voter demographics, there are many more issues that cut across all party lines.

I think [there’s] dissatisfaction in general with the way the country is running,” says Dr Sofia Collignon, senior lecturer in comparative politics at Queen Mary, University of London. The cost of living is high, public services are generally underfunded. Even Conservative voters, more prone to support the private provision of services, are now also suffering from run-down services.”

Dr Brian Boyle, a professor of politics at Newcastle University, agrees. Opinion polling consistently shows the economy and the NHS as the two biggest issues mentioned by the public,” he says. So while there’ll be specific constituencies where issues like immigration or the Israel-Gaza conflict may be a deciding factor for voters and who decides to stand as a candidate, the nationwide picture is centred around addressing the cost of living crisis and the NHS.”

This nosedive in living standards has, unsurprisingly, coincided with declining trust in politicians. Figures from an ONS survey last year indicate only 27 per cent of the public trust the UK government, with dominant political parties and parliament being the least trusted governmental institutions (24 per cent and 12 per cent, respectively). And this lack of trust is only further exacerbated by the apparent lack of connection between candidates and the communities they claim to represent.

If someone wants to represent you, they should earn the right to represent you by being amongst you and by engaging with you”


Some people are almost shocked that someone who’s seeking their votes, who’s seeking to represent them, is actually interested in talking to them”, Feinstein says. Along with Labour’s stance on the Israel-Gaza conflict, his decision to run as an independent was borne of a frustration with the chasm between the way democracy currently operates and how it should operate. If someone wants to represent you,” he says, they should earn the right to represent you by being amongst you and by engaging with you.” If Feinstein wins, he has pledged weekly surgeries with constituents, contrasting with the inaccessibility of his opponent, who he describes as an absent MP”. In a central London seat, people have never seen their MP, they’ve never seen a councillor – it’s just absurd.”

Pamela Fitzpatrick, an independent candidate for Harrow West, echoes this sentiment: People say their local MP [Gareth Thomas, who has held his seat for 27 years] doesn’t respond to constituents, he just turns up to photo-ops.”

This year’s crop of independent candidates may have also been galvanised by recent successes. In May’s local elections, after a successful crowdfunding campaign, ex-Labour member Jamie Driscoll gathered more votes than the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Reform combined after being barred from standing for the Labour Party as North East mayor.

Actually getting elected as an independent is, however, notoriously difficult – Driscoll ultimately came second to Labour’s Kim McGuinness in the local elections. Since 1950, there have only been 13 different independent and minor party MPs in Parliament and, in the last 50 years, only three independents have been elected to be MPs at a general election.

Candidates point to a lack of funds and time as major challenges when competing against political juggernauts. Last week, for example, Corbyn’s campaign team described Labour as a massive data machine”, making them more capable of targeting previous voters, producing leaflets and gathering support on social media. The Electoral Commission also imposes a £17,000 spending limit on independent candidates, who can raise unlimited funds from donations but cannot spend more than this amount. It’s going to be difficult to defeat someone who’s on national television everyday, who can spend as much as they want to, when we’re restricted to £17,000,” says Feinstein.

Where might this leave 2024’s independent candidates come 4th July? I don’t think that we’ll see a big intake of truly independent MPs,” Collignon says. But I think this may lead to a more fractured political environment with a more active but less coordinated opposition.”

Even if these candidates do make it to office, without the comforting machinery of a party budget (independent MPs don’t have access to Short Money, public funding for opposition parties), party backing or a national press office, independent MPs may have little power beyond advocating for issues affecting their local constituency. While independents technically have as much power as any other elected MP when it comes to voting on legislation, their ability to influence legislation itself is constrained by how effectively they build cross-party alliances and increase their credibility and profile in the public eye.

But after three successive terms of Conservative rule, this new wave of independent candidates nevertheless feels uplifting. There is a new vision of politics to be found in some of these unheard voices – one that is grounded in activism, not passivity; based on the power of the collective, not the individual; is inclusive, not exclusive.

Part of our campaign”, says Feinstein, is just trying to show people that politics can and should be different.”

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