Win or Lose, Independent Candidates Could Give Labour a Bloody Nose

Indie rockers are rocking the boat.

by Steven Methven

1 July 2024

Posters supporting independent candidates Andrew Feinstein and Jeremy Corbyn, June 2024. Vuk Valcic/Reuters

We’re now counting down the days until we get to watch those who’ve collectively immiserated us for over a decade face public humiliation one glorious election count at a time. Whoever said revenge is a dish best served cold clearly never sipped the warm, sweet honey of Michael Portillo’s 1997 face slipping into the abyss as he lost the Tory stronghold of Enfield Southgate. Now, multiply that by possibly a few hundred, grab the biggest spoon you’ve got, and get ready to enjoy what’s coming – piping hot.

The thematic arc of election night has pretty much already been set. One after another, big Tory beasts will be felled, replaced by big Labour beasts-to-be and littler Lib Dem ones. That’s the prediction of the polls, and the media’s Mystic Megs have largely followed. Even the Tories, at this desperate hour, have made the almost certainty of blue wipe-out a plank of their re-election campaign.

But if you’re only paying attention to the grand theme, you may miss some of the more interesting motifs asserting themselves throughout Thursday evening. The optimistic riff of the Greens; the tense and dissonant discord of Reform. And – throughout – the sweeter, wilder solos of those independents taking on big power, not with big money, but with the rich mix of hope and fury that flows through so many communities disenfranchised by Keir Starmer’s Labour.

British politics has never produced a hospitable environment for those trying to thrive outside the major parties. Money, time, brand-recognition, activist-power and voter data are the oxygen of a campaign, and our electoral system does its best to cut it off to those going alone. At the same time, polling – especially of the statistical kind like MRP – undervalues independents who have no previous electoral record to base a model on. And if you think polls are just a snapshot of what’s happening, think again. They tend to dominate the media narrative of elections, potentially impacting electoral choices.

But electoral politics is also about passion. 2024 is a year in which the country’s enthusiasm for the next party of power’s people and policies is historically low. At the same time, Labour voters’ anger about Israel’s assault on Gaza is singularly high. Put that together, and there’s a strong chance independents will break through in numbers of genre-busting significance. But what does ‘break through’ mean in a hostile environment for non-party politicians?

There are 459 independent candidates standing across the UK. In 2019, there were fewer than half that. Of that number, few have a chance of winning outright. In Islington North, Jeremy Corbyn was last week set to gain nearly 30%, rising to an all-out victory if enough voters come to understand he’s fighting outside of Labour. That could still happen. In Chingford and Woodford Green, a two-week old projection suggested Faiza Shaheen would garner at least 19% of the vote. That may easily grow by Thursday. Big-time name-recognition, committed campaigners, solid political credentials, deep local connections and brutal mistreatment by the Labour party is the tinder firing their thrilling campaigns.

But even if they don’t win (and the game is still very much afoot), their banking a significant share of Labour votes will be a bloody nose for a party whose tent would rather contain one Natalie Elphicke than tens of thousands of leftwing voters. That injury could be replicated in other places too, most notably those constituencies with large Muslim populations. In Birmingham Ladywood, shadow justice secretary Shabana Mahmood is facing a serious challenge from independent Akhmed Yakoob over Labour’s tacit approval of Israel’s conduct in Gaza. Intention to vote Labour there has fallen by 29% since 2019, and while Mahmood had an almost 30,000 majority that year, there are no shifting Tory voters to replace those who abandon her. Down the road in Birmingham Yardley, Jody McIntyre is looking to dent Jess Philips’ much smaller majority on the same platform (though under the banner of the Workers’ Party of Britain). And in the new constituency of Dewsbury and Batley, Rachel Reeves ally Heather Iqbal is facing pro-Palestinian independent Iqbal Mohamed, with some in Labour saying they’re very worried.

In Wes Streeting’s Ilford North seat, British Palestinian Leanne Mohamad is fighting to unseat the private healthcare fan and shadow health minister over his abstention on a Gaza ceasefire vote in November. With just a 5,000 vote majority for Streeting in 2019, she’s looking to activate the constituency’s 25,000 Muslim voters along with other disillusioned former Labour supporters. Of the campaign, she recently said: “Our engagement on the doorstep tells us that they will be lucky to safeguard even half of their 2019 vote share”. If anything near that comes to pass, the message to the Labour leadership will be deafening.

Facing a more uphill battle is Andrew Feinstein, taking on Starmer’s solid majority in Holborn and St Pancras. While a win might be unlikely, it’s perhaps a sign of Feinstein’s destabilising influence that a recent Evening Standard assessment of the seat failed to even mention the Jewish former ANC MP (though, bizarrely, Reform got a shout). It’s worth noting that in the last 60 years, every former prime minister’s first electoral win has been on an increased vote share in their constituency – except Theresa May’s. Feinstein’s ambitions may be justifiably bigger, but nudging Starmer’s share down by even a percentage point would amount to a historico-painful blot on the good-as-gold record of the boy from the pebble-dashed semi.

The independents in this election together play a rough-and-ready melody. But it’s one that hopefully foreshadows something much more cohesive and powerful. The Labour machine will be taking notes of any independent electoral inroads. The phrase ‘rock the boat’ can imply a singular attempt to cause a fuss. But if enough indie rockers rock that political boat, sooner or later we’ll have to build a new one.

Steven Methven is a writer and researcher for Novara Media’s live YouTube show Novara Live.

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