>Minor attraction

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After fighting off a stomach bug and failing to get on a fully booked standing room only Virgin Pendolino express train from Euston, I took the scenic (and slow) route to Birmingham via Northampton in a virtually empty Mainline Midland train to the minor parties conference. Energetically convened by Colin Copus of the Institute for Government Studies and colleagues, it was a small 2-3 day workshop with 20-25 participants of the kind run en masse by ECPR at its Joint Sessions. There were a variety of papers and a mixture of (not always closely related) rationales for looking at minor parties and independents (testing party typologies, theories of party merger etc. Although there were papers on Southern European, Dutch and Australian minor parties (often far left or populist), perhaps inevitably, there were a strong stress on UK politics and sub-national government with a lot of discussion of the Scottish and Welsh party systems and the development of the British National Party, UK Independence Party and England and Wales Greens. In comparative terms though the findings were far from uninteresting: the English Greens are organisationally behind the game compared to European (and Scottish and Irish) sister parties and have a large latent vote that is essentially of the moderate left and concerned with public services, rather than radical environmentalism or stopping the Iraq war; UKIP was better organized but still destabilised by its surge in support in the 2004 Euro-elections and still too internally democratic to accommodate their biggest asset, that permatanned Pim Forteyn in making, Robert Kilroy Silk; the BNP have possibilities of major breakthrough deprived urban locations, where politics is (or becomes) ethnicized, as in Burnley and Barking when the BNP adopts effective strategies to implant and ‘respectable-ize’ itself and choose candidates with roots in the local community. ‘Understanding local people’s problems’ is their strongest suite and their voters (although concentrated among less educated) come from a range of social backgrounds and are alienated regular voters who still retain a belief in the power of (protest) politics and voting. Fortunately, the BNP lack the resources and co-ordination to pull off such local breakthroughs to order and successful local branches tend to get uppity and independent with regard to the national leadership apparently. There were also some good papers about independents (and independence) in Irish politics and the House of Lords (lots of them there) and House of Commons (a handful), which made me think back to Czech debates on the subject in 1990-1 but also those of the mid-1990s in relation to the Czech Senate, which although a French style two round first-past-the-post system, actually offers a way into national politics for small parties and independents (probably due to low turnouts and weakish party structures at local level). My paper on pensioners’ parties got a moderately interested reception with some quite helpful comments that were neither praise nor criticism. I couldn’t help noticing that most papers were case studies of specific parties rather than taking a broad sweep by party type that I was attempt and I wondered whether minor parties should be regarded more as appendages or harbingers of change in national party systems defined by larger parties. Perhaps need to revert to my ‘small N’ instincts here.
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