LONDON // To British voters of a certain age, mention of fringe parties brings back memories of Screaming Lord Sutch, a failed pop singer (and no lord) whose presence offered a harmless sideshow at dozens of parliamentary elections. Standing first on behalf of the National Teenage Party, then Young Ideas and later, as his own youth became more distant, the Official Monster Raving Loony Party, he veered between silliness and relatively serious campaigning on youth issues, frequently attracting hundreds of votes without ever looking likely to win a seat.
In 2010, fringe candidates are a quite different proposition in British politics, capable of gaining sufficient support from disaffected electors to pose a genuine threat to the three main parties - Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats - in individual constituencies, and possibly even having a say on who forms the next government. There is no better example of the capacity of the smaller groups to disrupt the established order than in the north-western seat of Rochdale, scene of last week's calamitous blunder by the prime minister, Gordon Brown, in describing a woman as bigoted after she raised concerns about immigration.
Those concerns are shared by millions of voters. And Rochdale is a highly marginal constituency, snatched from Labour by Paul Rowen, for the Lib Dems, in the 2005 general election. Mr Rowen's majority was just 442 and subsequent electoral boundary changes have turned the seat notionally into one Labour could win back, though with an even flimsier lead. But for whom will Gillian Duffy, aghast at the word used about her when Mr Brown failed to realise his television microphone was still feeding his words to broadcasters, now cast her vote? Not, she says, for Labour, the party her family has traditionally supported.
It would not take many people, sympathising with Mrs Duffy and voting for one of the fringe candidates, to make a decisive difference to the outcome in Rochdale. Political analysts agree that it is not out of the question that some disillusioned Labour supporters could even be drawn to the far-right British National Party (BNP), which favours a halt to immigration and a repatriation programme, and the anti-Europe UK Independence Party, which would impose a five-year freeze on new arrivals.
Mr Brown's indiscretion and fears about immigration are by no means the only causes of growing support for parties that have no hope of governing Britain but can damage those who do aspire to high office. The collapse of trust caused by the scandal over expenses claimed by parliamentarians is unlikely to be forgotten when voters go to the polling stations on Thursday - or, almost as worrying for mainstream politicians, abstain in disgust.
"An awful lot of people are saying, in effect, no to the UK political establishment," said Anthony King, a professor of government at Essex University, north-east of London. Prof King, Canadian-born but for decades a respected analyst of UK voting patterns, believes the slow but persistent advances made by fringe parties - which he interprets as being any group outside the big three - will be maintained at this election and account for between eight per cent and 10 per cent of the votes cast.
He distinguishes between the "inner fringe" parties, such as those representing Welsh and Scottish nationalists, and the "outer fringe" covering groups ranging from Greens to the extreme left and right, such as the BNP. "The question is 'who will they take votes from?'," he said. "My answer is that some would not otherwise have voted at all. Some will just shift to the least 'inner' of the main parties, ie the Lib Dems.
"Normally, there would be disproportionate damage to the Conservatives, since if you held a gun to a fringe voter's head, they'd probably admit to being Conservative at heart. But I can also imagine people defecting from Labour, and they would go to all kinds of different candidates, though probably with the Lib Dems the major beneficiaries." Among what Prof King would call the "inner fringe" groups are the Ulster Unionists, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru (Welsh nationalists), which pundits say could between them win 20 seats at Westminster. The major party leaders fully recognise the possible importance of such electoral strength.
The Conservative leader, David Cameron, although opposed to any dilution of the UK, has let it be known he would seek a deal with nationalists if his party were elected without an overall majority, rather than accept terms from the Lib Dems that could include demands for proportional representation to replace Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system. Eleven years after the death of Screaming Lord Sutch, whose colourful public demeanour concealed the severe depression that eventually drove him to suicide, his political legacy is intact. The party he founded is fielding several candidates, campaigning for a range of eccentric policies from inviting Britain's EU partners to give up the euro in favour of the pound to requiring socks to be sold in threes to cover the loss of one.
None has the remotest chance of entering parliament. But members of the bigger fringe groups will take seats at Westminster, or win sufficient votes to change the outcome in certain constituencies, leaving a few politicians from the main parties nursing bloody noses. email@example.com