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Gary Younge
Voting for the oddballs

"It was a kick against the system," says Owen, the leader of the independent group. Owen is a former Labour councillor who was deselected because "he wouldn't toe the line" and has stood and won as an independent ever since. He puts the victories down partly to a local revolt against the history of one-party rule in a city where Labour once held all the seats. "It was a reaction against the old-boy network and everything that was going on behind closed doors. Not enough people knew what was going on. They wanted things opened up," he says. And he puts the victories down partly to a general disaffection with Labour. "They were angry about the pensions in particular but also the general arrogance of them in parliament. Most, but by no means all, of our support comes from former Labour voters."

But if the people of Stoke were kicking against the system, they were swimming with the tide. Their decision to turn their backs on the established parties en masse illustrates a growing divergence between the political class and the prevailing political culture which it is supposed to reflect. It is a dissonance characterised not so much by a clash between left and right - although it is informed by it - but between the margins and the mainstream, which finds its expression in various forms. In Birmingham, where the Justice For Kashmir party has five council seats, it is essentially ethnic. In Preston, where three independent councillors have joined the hard-left Socialist Alliance, it is ideological. If the rural areas continue to bust while the rest of the country booms, it could soon be geographic - a rural party standing against the perception of metropolitan domination of politics.

It is not a trend confined to Britain. In Denmark, all the mainstream parties, unions and business representatives pushed for a Yes vote in the euro referendum. The people voted No. Nor is its progress uniform. In Switzerland, a recent referendum over whether to limit immigration united the political and economic establishment against the proposal. The people backed them.

But it is gathering pace. In America more than a third of the electorate was too busy or uninterested to vote in 1996 - more than double the figure in 1980. It is little wonder when membership of the political class there is beginning to look hereditary. The Republican presidential candidate, George Bush, is running for the job his dad used to have while his Democrat counterpart, Al Gore, has already filled his father's shoes as a Tennessee senator. They are drawing from a gene puddle of leadership talent confined not to national politics but extending to civil rights, trade unions and municipal government. Martin Luther King III (the head of the Southern Christian leadership conference), James Hoffa (the head of the Teamster union), and Richard Daley (the mayor of Chicago) occupy the same positions as their fathers a generation ago. If the low viewing figures for the presidential debates are anything to go by, the turnout for this year's election could be even lower.

But this marginalisation does not stop at electoral politics. The uprisings in Seattle, Prague and Washington, the fuel protests and attacks on "paedophiles" in Portsmouth are all, in their own very different ways, examples of what happens when people are either unwilling or unable to access the levers of power to effect change that is both democratic and meaningful.

This is not the product of some vast conspiracy but a confluence of factors which have over the past few decades gradually rendered mainstream politics irrelevant to many and remote to most. As larger parties have dumped their ideological baggage and started travelling light, there is often little apart from their rhetoric to distinguish them.

Globalisation has further eroded distinctions by giving the invisible hand of the market - in the guise of the World Bank, IMF, multinational corporations and supranational bodies - carte blanche to pick up any democratically elected government by the scruff of the neck and slap it around if it attempts to put the needs of its electorate above the interests of international capital. With traditional electoral bases dwindling - women in call centres where men used to be in mines, rural communities full of commuting townies - the centre-left and right flounder for messages that reach beyond the shrinking faithful to the amorphous centre beyond.

Into the vacuum has stepped a mixture of charismatic individuals, extremist organisations and unpredictable politics. In Stoke, the independent councillors selected themselves, with no ideological unity apart from the fact that they did not represent political parties. For all Owen knew, they could have been fascists or members of religious cults. He took them on a hunch. "You take on board what you see," he says. "But I admit that what you see is not always what you get."

The trouble with this is that it could go anywhere. The main beneficiaries thus far have been the far-right. Jörg Haider's support in Austria is thanks in no small part to the cosy, corrupt collusion between the two principal mainstream parties that persisted mostly uninterrupted for almost half a century. Similarly, in Denmark it has been the far-right Danish People's party, which has gained most from the No vote. But the left has made notable inroads too. In London it was Ken Livingstone who took the capital with neither party machine nor personal wealth, but record, personality and profile.

The reaction of the mainstream has so far been organisational rather than political. Rather than address the issues of internal democracy, political alienation or economic exclusion that have created the conditions for marginalisation they have simply closed ranks. It is an attitude best illustrated by the reaction of the Belgian premier, Guy Verhofstadt, to the strong showing of the far-right Vlaams Blok, which won a third of the votes in Antwerp city elections earlier this month. "All the democratic parties have pledged not to form alliances with the Vlaams Blok. Due to the attitude of other parties it is doomed to disappear in the long run."

Nothing could be further from the truth. It is because of their attitudes that the Vlaams Blok is flourishing. It is the politically complacent and ideologically vacuous mainstream that is creating the politically aggressive and ideologically chaotic margins that veer between the reactionary and the radical - at times striving to preserve the democracy that is left, at others committed to erasing it.

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Useful links:
Special report: the Austrian far right in power
Special report: the US elections

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