I know from personal experience that independent candidates seldom perform well in general elections. The are of course exceptions - Dr. Richard Taylor in Wyre Forest defied the odds to be elected in 2001, and then again to hold onto his seat at the following election. Then there was Martin Bell, the man in the white suit. And in 2005 the late Peter Law took a seat in Wales, which was held by his agent Dai Davies at the subsequent by-election.
But in most of these cases there were exceptional circumstances. Dr. Taylor was elected on the back of a massive campaign to save Kidderminster Hospital. Martin Bell's election at the expense of former Conservative MP Neil Hamilton, who had been dogged by controversy, was assured when Labour and the Liberal Democrats agreed to step aside. And the Welsh situation came about following a reaction against the Labour Party's policy of all-women shortlists, in other words the split in the vote could be expected to reflect the split that existed locally within the then ruling party.
So some of the odds in the individual constituency betting list issued by the bookmaker Ladbrokes for the next general election make interesting reading. At Castle Point one Bob Spink is quoted at 11/4 to win the seat, behind the Conservative favourite but considerably ahead of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. In Dewsbury Khizar Iqbal is showing as a not impossible 12/1 underdog, well favoured over the Lib Dems at 100/1. An unnamed independent in Kirkcaldy & Cowdenbeath is reckoned to be the most serious challenger at 16/1 in what would admittedly appear to be a very safe Labour seat. In Luton South TV celeb Esther Rantzen is quoted at 6/1 despite the intervention of at least two other independents. In another Labour stronghold in Mansfield the Mansfield Independent Forum are second favourites at 10/1, as is Steve Kidd - an improbable victor at 33/1 in Normanton Pontefract Castleford. Plus of course there is Dr. Richard Taylor, standing once more in Wyre Forest and reckoned to be a close second favourite to the Conservative candidate at 11/8, and Dai Davies who is 8/11 favourite to retain his seat in Blaenau Gwent. And that's just the independents that have declared so far.
There are a few other battles worthy of mention. In Bethnal Green & Bow Respect are not thought to be completely out of the picture as 11/4 second favourites in spite of all their problems, and they are also quoted at 7/1 in nearby Poplar & Limehouse. In Brighton Pavilion the Green Party are actually 6/4 favourites to win a three-way battle with Labour and the Conservatives (oh, if only they possessed the same political nous in this part of the world!), and are not entirely out of the frame in Lancaster & Fleetwood and Oxford East, in both of which they are showing at 25/1.
The final imponderable is in Buckingham, the seat of John Bercow. Traditionally the big parties do not field candidates against the Speaker, which does of course leave him vulnerable to the challenge of a smaller party, in this case UKIP who are quoted at just 3/1 to take his seat. Given his unpopularity amongst some of his Conservative colleagues he may ironically need to depend upon the votes of traditional Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters to see off the UKIP challenge.
So what does all this mean? How many independents will make it to Westminster?
Personally, I think no more than two or three. Dai Davies seems likely and if I were a betting man (!) I'd probably back Dr. Taylor ahead of the Conservative favourite in Wyre Forest. The ex-Conservative, ex-UKIP Bob Spink is clearly not without a chance. And Esther Rantzen?
It may not seem much, but when one considers that prior to Martin Bell in 1997 the last independents to be elected from England, Scotland or Wales were Dick Taverne and Eddie Milne in the first election of 1974 the Stone Table would certainly appear to be cracking, albeit frustratingly slowly. Bear in mind the massive advantage that the major political parties enjoy in terms of organisation, publicity and finance and the fact that independents would appear to be making some headway seems more remarkable still.
This trend is certainly reflected in our local politics. In 1998 Yours Truly was the first candidate ever to be elected to the London Borough of Hounslow on an independent ticket. In 2002 there were four - three ICG members and the excellent Luke Kirton from ABeeC. Last time it was eight, and currently there are nine (ten if you count the enforced whiplessness of Bedfont's Councillor Jiwan Virk).
I am aware of course that there is a feeling in some quarters that we are all about to be washed away come the next local elections. I wonder what odds Ladbrokes would like to offer me on there being more indies elected in 2010 than there were nearly four years ago?