In a sunny pub car park on the Fylde Coast, Andy Higgins, prospective MP for Blackpool South, is sitting on a double-decker bus with Julius Caesar, a dragon, two witches and three knights. He needs to amass an army of 15,000 voters, but right now he’s more concerned with adjusting his chain-mail hood and waiting for his cue. It is April 23rd, St George’s Day, exactly three weeks until the residents of his constituency vote, and Andy knows he’s an underdog. Even wearing his red and white tunic and holding his plastic sword, he feels it. Every part of him wants to put back together this broken community, to stand up to the establishment and say: enough, we can only take so much; but so few independents have been successful in recent history. Only Lady Sylvia Hermon won in 2010 without party affiliation, while just two — Richard Taylor and Peter Law — did the same five years before. Candidates like him are viewed by many as peripheral, a sideshow, yet Andy has spoken on the doorsteps of this ward, has seen how disenfranchised people are and how little time they have for mainstream political parties. So when the narrator quotes Shakespeare and Andy finally appears before the small crowd of lunchtime drinkers, deep down he still believes he can win.
“Arise Lord Higgins”, the narrator says.
“Be not afraid of greatness."
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some… well some have greatness thrust upon them.’’
The Shovels is on Common Edge Road, right in the heart of Blackpool South. The area has seen better days. Like other British seaside towns, Blackpool has become a dumping ground for vulnerable people, a bedsit-land where empty guesthouses and B&Bs have been purchased by landlords and turned into houses of multiple occupation. On this bottom rung of the housing ladder, a room can be had for just £65 per week, attracting the unemployed and homeless now cheap flights have pushed tourists abroad. Simon Blackburn, leader of Blackpool Council, says that people come to the town when something’s gone wrong in their lives. Many are brought from other parts of the northwest by fond memories of childhood holidays. This is a place where people with all kinds of problems — drugs, drink, mental health — once felt things were going to be OK.
Andy Higgins thinks he can help them. “We’re all a bit cheesed off round here”, he says. Like many independent candidates, Andy is standing to raise awareness of a single issue: the decline of Blackpool Football Club under the ownership of the Oyston family. Blackpool will be relegated later this month after a poisonous year. The team started with just eight contracted players and have won only four times amid a number of off-the-field incidents. The chairman Karl Oyston was charged with misconduct in March after calling a fan a “massive retard” and the family have sued a number of supporters for libel. “It’s just got to terrible proportions”, Andy says.
But his campaign has grown to encompass so much more than football. He cares passionately about the town and its people, wants to improve health, education and unemployment. He’s been knocking on doors for weeks, and some of the things he’s seen just drive that home further.
He describes one house a few streets away from where we’re talking. A woman opened the door, and he looked in and thought: “Wow, OK, this is a wake-up call.” The house was a mess and he could see a painfully thin man and six young kids, all with no tops on, eating straight out of a fast-food bucket. He asked the woman if she planned to vote. She said she wasn’t interested in that kind of thing. Seconds later, he walked away from a closed door.
That might have been just one house, but there’s an awful lot more out there.
“We could go and find dozens right now”, he says.
And he doesn’t want to get on his high horse about it, but there’s two questions he keeps asking himself.
“Shouldn’t we be judged as a society on how these very people - the sad, the desperate, the lost - are treated?
“And doesn’t the darkest hour always come right before the dawn?”
The Hansard Society’s Audit of Political Engagement claims to measure the political pulse of the nation. If true, the 2015 audit will have had Westminster reaching for the defibrillator. The report found that only 30% of the population are strong supporters of a political party, while just 61% believe parliament is essential to our democracy. Apathy is also stronger than ever: less than half of those surveyed said they were certain to vote in the next election, falling to 16% of 18 to 24-year-olds. The audit warned of an unpredictable period in British politics as deep public disillusionment with Westminster sees voters switch allegiance to smaller, insurgent parties. This has led to a surge in support for the SNP, UKIP and Greens, but might independents – those not attributed to any political party - benefit too?
The odds against them are huge. They lack both human and financial resources, and are largely excluded from the national media. Yet, there is still a quiet voice inside many of them saying: stand up, help, you are needed. This year, 214 have put themselves forward. Beki Adam, independent candidate for Mid-Sussex, thinks of it like this: you’re on a boat and there’s a hole in the hull — you can try and plug it, but the water’s flooding in and eventually you have to bail out. Does it matter what colour the buckets are? In that moment, do you care if they’re red, yellow, green or blue? Or should whoever’s nearest get off their deckchair and use their own two hands to stop us all from drowning?
Not that she doesn’t sometimes think: what am I doing? She sits on stage in front of hundreds of voters in Haywood’s Heath on a warm spring evening in April — some of the audience friendly, some not — and she wouldn’t be human if she didn’t every now and then wonder how she got here and what she’s had to give up. She’s certainly lived a colourful life. In the early 1990s, she was a presenter on Top Gear, delivering short, punchy monologues about mini coopers and the merits of motocross to the camera. In 1993, angry with the country’s drug laws, she opened Britain’s first cannabis café in Brighton. The doors were shut after exactly 53 minutes when four police officers entered and she was arrested. Then in 1994, something completely different; she became a Buddhist nun. “It was like coming back home”, she says about her faith. “It fitted like a glove.” The next 17 years were spent with people she describes as “the most convivial, pleasant and supporting you could ever wish to meet”, and now this: Sir Nicholas Soames, grandson of Winston Churchill and incumbent MP for mid-Sussex, sitting yards away, the audience listening to her opening remarks, her nervous voice trying to sum up in 180 seconds everything she represents.
So why do it? Like many stories, Becki’s begins with oil. Sussex has become a focal point for anti-fracking campaigners as the government commits to going “all out for shale”. In 2013, the oil and gas exploration company Cuadrilla was given permission to drill just outside of Balcombe, a village where Beki spent many happy days as a child. She drove past the morning they cut the driveway into the site and felt instantly uneasy about the whole thing. Her small farm in the North Downs sources water directly from the soil. “When you get your water this way, you know how precious it is”, she says. The protests started soon after. More than 1,000 people set up camp, some blocking the gates, others chaining themselves to barriers. Beki took down firewood from the farm and did whatever she could to help.
Cuadrilla eventually scrapped plans to use controversial fracking technology near the village, but for Beki something had changed. She now felt a compelling duty to step up. She began travelling to Westminster and spent long days in committee rooms. This was a kind of awakening. Sitting there gave her a window into the political system and the view wasn’t pleasant. So when the crowd in Clair Hall goes quiet, and the room’s collective eyes fall on her, she has one message above all: “Our government has been hollowed out by corporate interests”, she says. “It’s affecting the NHS, our education system. It’s in the House of Commons, it’s in the House of Lords.” And at the core of it, isn’t that what she, and other independents, can offer that’s different? A 21st century free from party politics and vested interests? She finishes to polite applause and just yards away there’s Soames again, chairman of the defence contractor Aegis, non-executive director of the energy firm Aggregated Micro Power, senior advisor to insurance broker Marsh Ltd, taking a slow sip of his water and shuffling in his seat.
There’s an old Eastern proverb that Beki likes to repeat: the will of man will eventually tip the balance. It means that change sometimes comes when you’re least expecting it, it just happens. She wants to believe that now more than ever, but at the same time there’s another saying she can’t quite forget: the longest journey is between the heart and the head — and some just aren’t quite equipped to connect the two. Mid-Sussex has been held by the Conservatives since 1974 and Soames received more than 50% of the vote in 2010, yet wherever she goes people are frustrated, for many the whole world’s wrong and there’s no-one left to turn to. If you go on the streets you can see that anger, and when you get down to the very base of it, all of them just want things to be better. That’s why Beki believes it’s possible to overturn his majority; difficult yes, but also possible.
When she first started, it seemed like climbing a mountain. She set off without knowing if she’d reach the top. But as the campaign has gone on, her analogy has changed.
Now it feels like she’s starting a fire.
She has enough kindling, enough paper, enough wood. She has more matches than she needs, but still, the question remains, will the flame catch?
“I don’t know if you’re familiar with lighting fires,” she says after the debate has ended and the other candidates have gone home.
“Sometimes you turn your back on it and it’s caught, it’s ablaze.
“Other times you turn around and that’s just not the case.”
The idea came to Adam Osen’s brother one night while watching Brewster’s Millions, a screwball 80s comedy starring Richard Prior and John Candy. The premise of the film is simple: to inherit $300 million, Prior’s character Monty Brewster has to spend $30 million in 30 days. With ten days to go, he decides to run for New York City mayor. But he doesn’t want to win. At a packed press conference, Brewster unveils his election slogan to a roomful of reporters: Vote for None of the Above!
That was the lightbulb moment for Adam. He could see things were wrong, not just in his constituency of Chingford and Woodford Green but the entire country, and this time he was going to stand up and do something about it. So in 2010, 50-year-old Adam Osen became 50-year-old None of the Above, or None to friends. It was easy. You filled in the forms, sent them off, and then you waited. His wife Rebecca tried to talk him out of it. She said he was crazy. But Adam thought it was brilliant. He wanted to appeal to voters disillusioned by the expenses scandal and this was just the gimmick he needed. In January, the deed was done and None was already in the papers.
He took three months off work. Knocked on thousands of doors. Handed out thousands of leaflets. Everyone he spoke to seemed to agree with him. He told them he wanted to give local people a greater involvement in the day-to-day running of the country, explained that his loyalty would be only to them, not some distant party. He was absolutely convinced he was going to win. It was the right thing to do, and no matter how many obstacles were placed in his path, he was going to do it.
He remembers going to the count and seeing all these piles of paper growing and thinking: where the hell’s my pile? He stayed for an hour or two and it was soul destroying. Even now he describes it as traumatic. The next day, when the results were announced, he knew what was coming. It was a formality. Iain Duncan Smith retained his seat with 22,743 votes. None had 202.
Five years later and None still hasn’t changed his name back. He’s not standing for election this time, but his mother Doris is. She’s 84 years old and the oldest candidate to declare in the country. He’s helping out with her campaign in Ilford and is in regular contact with around 70 other independents. He’s still passionate about the cause, but says he’s doing more good by assisting others than if he was standing. I ask if, with the benefit of hindsight, he regrets changing his name. There’s a long pause before he answers.
“If you want to even have a chance of coming to people’s notice you have to do something extreme”, he says. “The downside of that is that people think you are a nutcase or an eccentric. It’s an awkward position to be in.”
So he’s not expecting much on May 7th. He thinks of them out there, literally standing on soap boxes, pounding the streets, delivering the same message over and over, and he feels for them. Often nobody’s listening and it’s bloody hard, spending your own money, your own time, involving your own family. You don’t have the resources for the big stuff and sometimes you’re excluded from the small stuff too. He remembers standing outside a mainline train station handing out leaflets when an employee came out and told him, you can’t do that here, even though he could. The same thing happened outside a school, and in a hospital when he was giving blood. Then there’s the exclusion from hustings, and the interviews pulled by broadcasters for interests of balance. “It’s very, very frustrating”, he says. “I just hope when it’s all over not too many of them are bitterly disappointed”.
Back in Blackpool, Andy Higgins wouldn’t have it any other way. The bus is rolling towards the promenade and he’s in the wind, on the top deck, with 30 friends and supporters, ducking every now and then as low hanging branches speed above their heads. Sure, he wishes there was more time. Give him an extra three or four weeks and he’d have a lot more votes. He just wants to get himself in front of as many people as possible. Most are undecided, but when they hear what he’s standing for, you can see the change in them. He spoke to a women yesterday and before leaving she said, I’ll vote for you, and I’ll get my husband to vote too.
The beer cans are piling up in the aisles and Andy knows they’re running a good campaign. It’s been like taking a step back in time, he says, to the early days of the left. Nights spent in pubs, playing music, passing round the hat, everyone showing solidarity. It is a different world from Labour, the Conservatives, the Lib Dems. Corporations, he calls them, and he doesn’t even want to guess how much they’re spending. Politics is big business now and people make big careers and big money, and while he has nothing against Gordon Marsden or any of the others standing, sometimes it’s hard not think they might as well be working for McDonalds or Google.
The journey ends under the red steel of the tower and the glare of the Irish Sea. A waiting television crew records half-cut witches and knights run across four lanes of traffic to a clearing by the beach. They round up a small crowd of pensioners and students. An ice cream seller circles, sensing an opportunity. Andy stands before them and not for a second is he worried about being taken seriously. After all, doesn’t England have a great history of eccentricity? Isn’t all publicity good publicity? Don’t they say it’s the cracked ones that let in the light?
The performance starts. An evil family rule Blackpool from their secret castle with an iron fist. They brood and hatch plans against the town’s poor and weary residents. The family cackle and stir fistfuls of money into a bubbling cauldron. Darkness and sadness falls over the Gold Coast. The people stop caring. Time passes. Anger grows. This is when Andy asks the people to lend him their ears. He says true nobility is exempt from fear. That they will have to come together to fight on judgment day.
“Remember you are many and they are few”, he says to the cheering crowd.
Andy holds his sword aloft. The battle rages. The people rise like lions after slumber.
At the end, Andy slays the dragon.