Issues & Ideas | 13th January 2015

Why do minor parties field so many candidates? They lost £600,000 doing so in 2010

In 2010 the Green Party won 1 MP. Ukip won none. Nor did the […]

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In 2010 the Green Party won 1 MP. Ukip won none. Nor did the BNP or the English Democrats. But the four parties collectively fielded 1,338 candidates.

Only one candidate (Caroline Lucas) in 1,338 was successful, which means 99.93 per cent of them weren’t. Even a bankrupt business would struggle to return so little on an investment.

Success is, admittedly, hard. Only 57 of the Lib Dem’s 631 candidates won a seat in 2010 – 91 per cent of them lost. But this quartet of then-minor parties (Ukip are now, of course, a “major party”) didn’t just not win, they rarely won back their deposit.

Every candidate for Parliament has to put down a £500 deposit to stand. If they win at least 5 per cent of the vote, they win this money back. But smaller parties rarely ever do. All but one of the English Democrats’ 107 candidates failed to (the party only succeeded in Doncaster North – Ed Miliband’s seat). So did all but seven of the Green Party’s 335 candidates.

Ukip and the BNP were more successful, but still lost around four-fifths of their deposits: the former fielded 558 candidates, and 338 stood for the latter. The cost of all this isn’t trivial. Ukip had to pay £229,500 in lost deposits, the Greens £164,000, BNP £133,000, and English Democrats £53,000.

Why, then, do they bother? The four parties spent nearly £600,000 on fielding candidates with no chance of winning and little hope of not losing £500. Those are precious pounds the party could have spent in seats they were actually competitive in.

The parties think fielding candidates is a mark of major party status, and makes them credible. Credibility is key. As my colleague George Eaton reported in November, the Greens fare far better in the polls if voters are asked to consider every party as being equally likely of winning each seat. The implication is that there is a large and hidden Green vote, but voting Green is currently seen as a waste.

It’s unclear if fielding hundreds of candidates is the right reaction. It takes limited resources away from key seats, but it theoretically helps a party win more votes nationally – if they don’t stand in a seat, they won’t win any votes.

The Greens fielded 128 more candidates in 2010 than 2005, but their national vote share actually fell slightly.

National votes mean nothing unless they are turned into seats, but they are crucial for convincing bodies like Ofcom to treat you as a major party. But fielding more candidates doesn’t guarantee more votes. In 2010, for instance, the Greens fielded 128 more candidates than they had in 2005, but their national vote share fell slightly.

The Greens and Britain’s most prominent far-right trio weren’t the only parties to lose money in 2010. The little-know Christian Party fielded 71 candidates, but none won back a deposit. Neither did the Monster Raving Loony Party’s 27 candidates (read our recent profile of the fading group on the New Statesman).

Parties of the past also fought on fruitlessly. 17 candidates stood under the flag of the National Front, while the Liberal Party, who ruled Britain a century ago, fielded five. The Communists ploughed on too, with their six candidates – and there was even an inevitable “Elvis Party”.