Sunday, 25 April 2010

South East Asia: Ignore it at your peril

To anyone who's interested in foreign affairs last week's leaders debate was a let-down. Instead of ninety minutes of questions on the UK's place in the world, we were treated to 45 minutes on Afghanistan, Europe, climate change and (bizarrely, though not quite unexpectedly) the Pope - before the topic of conversation turned back to deficits, duck islands and the like.

Personally I'd been hoping for at least one question relating to South East Asia. Not just because it's a personal interest of mine but because it's a region that, over the next decade, is going to shape the world - and inevitably affect the UK - in ways that our politicians don't seem to head or even comprehend. Take the following scenarios....

1. The year is 2012- the political situation in Thailand has totally broken down, leaving the country in violent disarray. Next door in Burma civil war is raging between the ruling junta and ethnic rebel groups which were forced into conflict ahead of the 2010 election. This has left the Golden Triangle (one of the worlds largest heroin producing regions, spanning the Thai-Burma border) completely outside the control of any government and run by various militias. The inevitable price-wars that follow result in a flood of cheap heroin into the UK and Europe....

2. The year is 2015 -a continuing increase of ethnic and rural protests in China has begun to threaten the government's position. In a bid to generate national unity they order an invasion of the Senkaku Islands -an uninhabited territory of which both China and Japan claim ownership. Japan responds by pumping funds into its minimalist military and deploying war ships. Vietnam- which has its own island disputes with China - also deploys vessels. The US is more worried about Taiwan and puts its navy -currently stationed in the Taiwan straits - on high alert. India- which had fought several border wars with China and still disputes inland territory- mobilises its army. China responds in kind. Tension mounts....

3. The year is 2020 - Burma's nuclear programme (supported by Russia and North Korea) has come to fruition. Isolated and impoverished the erratic regime opts to sell the plutonium it produces to the highest bidder. The world reacts with panic as rumours of contact with terrorist groups spread. The solution is not clear- Burma is firmly within China's sphere of influence and any military action would surely antagonise the Chinese government. But Beijing seems to have little control over the regime's next move....

4. The year is 2025 - the effects of climate change, exacerbated by the Chinese government's damming projects in Tibet, have led to major water shortages in Bangladesh. Thousands of refugees head across the border into India- now one of the world's economic power houses - generating ethnic tensions and threatening the state's stability. Foreign businesses begin to withdraw a rate that threatens to trigger global economic chaos...

These aren't scare-stories: they are all very possible, even (in some cases according to some commentators) likely. The world's engagement with China, approach to the ongoing crisis in Burma, reaction to increasing violence in Thailand and stance on the occupation of Tibet is not just important because of the human costs today - but because of the huge political effects (for the whole world) tomorrow. Often it seems that Western government leaders ignore South East Asia....they do so at their peril.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Why we need to drop the bomb

I haven't updated this blog for a week or so (thank you very much dissertation!!) so I guess straight after the second leaders debate is a good place to pick up. One of the issues of the night - which came up in the first debate and has been running ever since - is one which I feel particularly strongly on. You guessed it: Trident.

First off its great to see this become an issue again. If nothing else the Lib Dems (and Nick Clegg in particular) have been able to bring this, if only briefly, to the forefront of UK politics- where it should be. True, the SNP and Plaid Cymru have both been very vocal about the issue and the CND is still highly active (despite what Liam Fox might think) but for such a massive political matter the possession of 48 warheads each 8 times the size of those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has received comparatively little attention.

Why should we be debating it at all? Because the truth is- regardless of whether we did or didn't during the cold war - we no longer need nuclear weapons. In fact the cost of maintaining them (over £76 billion) means that they're actively doing more harm than good.

The arguments are as old as the hills, but at a time when the UK's WMD programme (for want of a better phrase) is creeping back into the spotlight, they're worth having another look at.....

1. They don't tackle the threats we currently face- Islamic terrorism from the Pakistan/Afghan border, Somalia, Yemen and our own back yard (think home-grown suicide bombers) is the number one threat and this cannot be countered by nuclear missiles.

Troops on the ground, greater aid to impoverished areas and work with local security forces might help tackle terrorist 'breeding-grounds' abroad. Greater cross-community work and better security apparatus might help tackle those at home. Enormous bombs that kill hundreds of thousands of civilians will deal with neither.

2. Some countries that face threats from nuclear weapons do not posses them - when defending the replacement of Trident in last week's debate David Cameron made a -much overlooked - comment along the lines of "we don't know what's going to happen with China in the next few years". That's true - but it's a poor argument in favour of developing UK nukes. Taiwan and Japan both have territorial disputes with China. Disputes that are far more likely to lead to war than any far off conflict between China and the UK. Yet none of them seek to defend themselves from China's nuclear weapons by creating their own. The same situation can be applied to Bahrain re. Iran and South Korea re. North Korea.

If these states - that face very real threats from nuclear powers - do not see the need to invest billions in nuclear weapons then why should we?

3. The USA is our ally - of course South Korea, Taiwan and Japan all enjoy protection from the USA - but then again so does the UK. Apart from the Falklands War there has not been a significant military conflict in the last 20 years that the UK has been involved in but the USA has not. In all likelihood, if the UK goes to war again it will do so alongside the state possessing the world's largest nuclear arsenal. Why does it need its own?

4. Deterrent doesn't work - it is argued that we need nuclear weapons to deter other states from using theirs on us. But - true as this argument may have been during the Cold War- does it really hold water today? Two of the most often cited 'nuclear threats' are Iran and North Korea; notably they are ruled by two of the most irrational and extreme regimes on the planet.

Deterrent only works if your opponent thinks rationally and values his own life. Holding a gun to the head of a robber can make him stop – it’s a workable deterrent. Holding a gun to the head of a suicide bomber won't do anything - because he's prepared to die.

Kim Jong-Il is happy to starve the North Korean people, let the economy fall into ruin and effectively destroy the entire state. If - and its a big if - on top of this he's insane enough to ever want to launch a nuclear attack on the UK, would mutually assured destruction really be deterrent?

5. The moral cost - this is the one that no one really wants to talk about. But nuclear weapons are the ultimate in barbarity. They are totally indiscriminate -they will kill every single living thing in a massive vicinity. They will cause cancer in people further afield. They will poison land and water for generations to come. Just remember that the fallout from the Chernobyl blast (a power-station accident not a weapon but the principle is the same) affected sheep as far away as Wales.

Is such indiscriminate brutality ever morally acceptable no matter what the perceived costs of not launching a nuclear weapon? Does the potential of 'enemy' states to use them justify developing this potential ourselves? In the build up to the 2003 Iraq war it was suggested that Saddam's scientists were developing germ-based weapons; should we have done the same in case he decided to use these against us?

It’s a big ethical debate but its one that needs to be had.

6. Nuclear weapons are already harming us- the argument in favour of nuclear weapons might be easier if they were cost free. But they're not. They are costing tens of billions of pounds which could be far better spent.

For example, this money could be used to fund a robust development initiative in Somalia which would win the support of Somali people and prevent the state from becoming a 'training ground' for terrorists who wish to harm the UK. Or it could be used to train the Pakistani police and military so that they can clamp down on the terrorist training camps that we know exist. These would be productive initiatives that deal with the threats we are facing now .....not potential deterrents against some possible future aggressor.

Or the money could be spent at home- on hospitals, pensions, schools and police. Everyone is talking about making cut-backs and these are going to have to come from somewhere.

By wasting such vast amounts of capital on such a fruitless pursuit is causing active harm to the country right now - by depriving these other initiatives and areas of much needed funds.

Overall some will agree passionately with this assessment and others will fervently argue against it. Either way it’s good to see that the debate it happening. I don't agree with everything that Nick Clegg stands for but he's done the country a service by putting Trident in the spotlight once again.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Will the Tories change the world?

Almost a week into the election campaign the focus is still firmly on the economy. The debate over tax breaks for married couples showed a few dividing lines between the parties in terms of social standpoints but the emphasis remains on the financial side. Cuts, spending and saving policies are the order of the day.

It'll probably be that way for the next couple of weeks but things will change on April 22nd when Sky holds the televised leaders debate on foreign affairs. This is the one that really interests me. I guess the big question is: if the Conservatives win on May 6th will the UK's foreign policy significantly change?

In terms of human rights and foreign development - key electoral issues for a lot of activists - there are some promising signs. The Conservative Human Rights Commission, set up to guide the party's foreign policy down a pro human-rights path, has taken a strong line on issues such as Burma, modern day slavery, child soldiers and the use of rape as a weapon in war. Some of the Commission's senior members, such as Benedict Rogers, are amongst the most committed human rights activists in the UK and they've worked closely with NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty to formulate feasible and robust policy proposals.

There are also signs that William Hague will take human rights issues seriously if he becomes Foreign Secretary; he's been tough in his criticism of the Burmese dictatorship and in 2008 called on the government to withhold recognition of Mugabe's regime after Zanu-PF violence forced Morgan Tsvangirai out of the presidential race. To top it off the Tories are committed to increasing international aid to 0.7% of the GDP (including £500 million to fight malaria) and to setting up an Independent International Aid Watchdog to monitor the Department for International Development's performance.

Could this be a welcome change from a Labour stint marked by a very dubious record on human rights? Certainly the current government's complicity in torture, silence on human rights violations in Saudi Arabia and recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet amongst other issues have led many activists to believe that it is time for a change. The sacking of Craig Murray over revelations about UK’s work with Karimov’s regime in the ‘War on Terror’ was another key sign that Labour’s support for human rights hit a cut-off point when strategic interests are at stake.

But how different would a Conservative administration be? The Conservative Human Rights Commission is a very good initiative - there is no doubt about that. But there is a question about how much those at the top of a Tory government would listen to its recommendations. While the Commission asserts that "freedom and human dignity should be at the heart of foreign policy" the official Conservative website suggests that "Foreign policy is above all about the protection and promotion of our national interest, and will be crucial in charting Britain’s path out of recession." The emphasis on UK interests and the economy suggests that (like the current government) financial gain could trump human rights concerns.

It's unlikely, for example, that a Conservative government would risk loosing British jobs over criticising the Saudi government's execution of homosexuals and use of torture. In fact, David Cameron met King Abdullah when he visited the UK and showed no sign of raising human rights concerns. Similarly the party’s desire for a "strong and effective relationship with China" suggests that, whilst the Conservative Human Rights Commission displays a link to Free Tibet on its website, Cameron and Hague would be reluctant to rock the boat over Tibet or East Turkestan. A recent Free Tibet/Students for a Free Tibet campaign for a reassessment of the UK's engagement with China on human rights issues was strongly supported by some individual Conservative MPs but received little support from the party as a whole (a list of MPs who signed the campaign EDM can be seen here).

And it would be unfair to ignore the good things that Labour has done on the human rights and development front. Like Hague, Miliband has taken a tough stance on Burma including leading calls for the regime’s referral to the ICC and a global arms embargo. Labour too are committed increasing aid spending to 0.7% of GDP (the current figure is 0.4%) and made sure that the ban on Vulture Funds was passed before the dissolution of Parliament.

Overall then its likely that a Conservative victory would see a continuation of the current trend: a decent line on human rights issues but stopping as soon as there is a real threat to UK interests like the economy or the ‘War on Terror’. That’s not to say the Human Rights Commission is irrelevant – not by a long shot. If it is taken seriously – and that is a possibility – then things could really improve. In any event, if the Conservatives are elected in should definitely be a focus point for activist groups and could provide a valuable in-road to the government.

Of course there’s also the Lib Dems- who could very well end up playing a part in the next government. They’ve certainly taken the toughest line on issues such as Saudi Arabia (Cable refused to meet King Abdullah in London) and Tibet (Clegg urged Gordon Brown to boycott the Beijing Oympics opening ceremony) – but its questionable how much weighting would be given to human rights issues in coalition negotiations.

Ultimately the ethical-extent of the next government’s foreign policy probably won’t be altered by the party in power. But it can be altered by the UK public – because if there’s one thing a government values above strategic or economic interests its domestic support. Groups likes CAFOD, Greenpeace, Free Tibet and Amnesty are more active than ever in telling the candidates that human rights and international development are voter issues.

It’s a slow process – but the more noise we make the greater chance that our government- whichever party it is –will realise that sometimes the UK has to put others first. The future of worldwide human rights and poverty reduction isn’t dependant on the Tories, Labour or the Lib Dems getting into power. Its dependent on us making our voices heard when they get there.

Friday, 9 April 2010

A footnote to the Baader-Meinhof Complex

On Friday an interesting piece of news was reported, largely under the radar: Verena Becker, an ex-member of the Red Army Faction, was charged in Germany for her part in the murder Attorney General Siegfried Buback 33 years ago.

It's no great revelation - Becker has already served time in jail for other RAF murders and she was arrested at the time of Buback's assination; there was just never enough evidence to prove she was definitely involved. But it's an interesting footnote to the saga of a bizarre and murderous terrorist group - the likes of which Europe has never seen since.

You see, the thing that interests me the most about the RAF is that well over a decade since the group fell apart (it formally dissolved in 1998 but its last attack was in 1993 and its influence had waned long before then) there is still a degree of uncertainty about what the young men and women involved were actually fighting for.

Stefan Aust's excellent book - the Baader Meinhoff Complex and the film adaptation (both of which I'd highly recommend) tell the story of the group's emergence from Germany's left-wing protest movement; a society of intellectuals and students angry at their state's perceived shift towards authoritarianism, failure to move away from its Nazi past and complicity in the Vietnam War by accommodating American troops. Indeed, there's no doubt that the RAF was just one part of a Europe-wide militant left-wing phenomenon including the much more active Revolutionary Cells (also in Germany) and the Red Brigades (in Italy).

But there was another side to the RAF - one of drugs, sex and often apparently mindless violence. Aust flags this up, and it is hammered home by historians such as Burleigh who suggest that - by and large- the RAF carried out attacks first then justified their actions with rambling references to Marx and Mao later on. There's a lot of weight to that argument; the RAF's early days consisted of stealing cars and robbing banks. Members were often high on drugs during attacks and their ideology was tenuous at best. After the 'first generation' of members was imprisoned the organisation's sole aim was to free them- nothing more.

Some still maintain that Baader, Meinhoff, Ensslin and their followers were principled revolutionaries. Others claim they were simply LSD-ridden nihilists who were looking for conflict.

So why does it matter today? Because it's only from the past that we can understand the present. People often say that we can't apply the lessons learnt from Northern Ireland and Northern Spain to Islamic terrorism. The IRA, UDA, ETA and similar European terrorist groups, though harbouring some ideological viewpoints, were fighting for specific territorial claims not for abstract political philosophies; the two are completely different.

But the RAF, and the other left-wing terrorist groups throughout Germany and Italy were -at least officially- fighting for an ideology and for wider changes to society. It would be simplistic to compare them to Al Qaeda but if the RAF was about more than drugs and mindless violence- if its members were fighting for a political philosophy which, however flawed, they passionately believed it, then Europe has had some experience of combating ideological terrorism before - and maybe, just maybe we can learn from this.

Even if that's not the case – it’s still worth looking back on the actions of Verena Becker and her contemporaries - and asking just what they were trying to achieve.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Kyrgyzstan and the death of the Tulips

Kyrgyzstan: few people can even spell it, let alone point to it on a map. And even less will care about its plight while all eyes are focussed on Cameron and Brown's race to Downing Street. To be fair, BBC coverage of the unfolding crisis hasn't been at all bad but expect it to drop of rapidly as the election campaign hots up and the now recycled footage of burning trucks and dead protesters becomes too familiar to re-run.

Its one of those tragic political ironies that President Kurmanbek Bakiyev, now powerlessly hiding out in the South of the country, came to power 5 years ago in the Tulip Revolution - a popular uprising against corruption and authoritarianism. Like so many leaders- Uganda's Museveni, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe and Equatorial Guinea's Obiang being amongst today's worst examples - he turned into the exact abusive dictator that he fought to depose. The Tulips are well and truly dead.

But Kyrgyztan's turmoil is reflective of something much bigger - the failure of any real political progress in Central Asia. Since the Soviet Union collapsed and five new Central Asian Republics (known colloquially as the 'stans) were formed, the region has been blighted continuously by brutal dictators, sham elections and horrendous human rights abuses. President Niyazov's leadership of Turkmenistan - marked by rotating gold statues, a ban on beards and an attempt to build a palace of ice in one of the world's hottest climates - would have been almost laughable if it wasn't for the extrajudicial executions and mass starvation. Uzbek President Karimov's practice of boiling opponents alive sounded like something out of medieval times, not contemporary politics. And Tajikistan's recent legislative election, succinctly summed up by the Economist as "change you can't believe in", was so corrupt and shambolic that you could be excused for wondering why the government even bothered.

To the credit of the West some work is being done. The OSCE and American government are working to try and foster some form of democracy in Turkmenistan whilst the UK, among others, is providing aid to several Central Asian States, including Kyrgyzstan, with a portion devoted to improving governance. But these efforts are often uncoordinated and weak.

And they always shy away from criticising the ruling regime.

Why? Because Central Asia is on a fault line. It lies between the Russian and 'Western' spheres of influence. It also plays host to several military bases from both sides - the US ones playing a fundamental role in bombing raids on Afghanistan and Iraq. If that's not enough a lot of opposition movements (especially in Uzbekistan) are Islamic. So it doesn't pay to rock the boat. Craig Murray's excellent memoirs Murder in Samarkand show just how willing the US and UK have been to turn a blind eye to the Uzbek government's abuses, including widespread torture, in return for information and an ally in the 'War on Terror'.

And Kyrgyzstan is no different. In fact, as it plays host to both Russian and US bases, there is all the more reason for these governments to stay onside with whoever is in power. Ms Otunbayeva -one of the leaders of the current uprising- has already said that "some questions have to be considered" regarding the status of the bases. It wouldn't be too far off the mark to read this as a thinly disguised warning: "support me because I now call on shots on whether you get to keep your military presence here". Consequently neither Washington nor Moscow will want to go further than the other in criticising any developments in Kyrgyzstan.

On top of this you can add a big splash of public indifference in Western states. The UK currently spends just over £2 million on helping improve governance and democracy in Kyrgyzstan. In context that is next to nothing...but why splash out if it’s not going to win you any votes? Crises in Africa and Eastern Asia have often generated widespread public outcry in 'the West' but all too frequently, and for a whole host of reasons, Central Asia is overlooked. How many people have heard of the Andijan Massacre compared to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, even though it occurred 16 years more recently?

I should emphasise that I'm not blaming Central Asia's problems on outside states. Not by a long shot. The region's tragedies have been primarily generated by brutal and sometimes frankly insane leaders who are all to ready to abuse their own people for personal gain.

But there is more the international community can do to help. 'The West' should cooperate with Russia to provide coordinated governance-building programmes - and to provide strong, joint criticism when abuses occur. Governments should also invest more into aid and development, and not be willing to sell-out human rights and democracy for the sake of militarily strategic alliances. Big businesses investing in natural resources also have a role to play and should be encouraged to consider the region's citizens - not just their own profits.

And we, the public, should tell our elected representatives that we want them to act for Central Asia,that we care about its future.....that we care about Kyrgyzstan.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Who are the others?

Of course the media focus is on Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib dems - and it'll stay that way throughout the election campaign. But around 10% of voters say they'll back 'other' parties. And 29 seats in the Commons are currently held by parties outside the 'big three'. This is going to be particularly important if we enter hung-parliament territory where deals will be struck and coalitions made. It's very possible, for example, that we'll end up with a government that needs 5 or 10 more MPs to make it workable - in that case these 'others' will take centre stage.

There’ll probably be over 50 parties running - including ones for communists, pensioners and pot-smokers. But in practice only a handful will make an impact. Here's my take on the main 'other' parties and my predictions of how they'll fair come May 6th......

Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP)
The SNP currently hold 7 of the 29 Scottish seats at Westminster and have set themselves an ambitious target of extending their share to 20 at this election. They'll certainly benefit from public disillusionment with Labour and from recent successes in Scottish Parliament and Euro Parliament elections. However, some folk are unhappy with their performance as a minority government in Scotland and they failed to steal Glenrothes from Labour in the 2008 by-election.
Prediction: Will make gains but will fall short of their 20-seat target. Could be an important player in any coalition.

Plaid Cymru (PC)
The Welsh Nationalist party sees this election as its "coming of age" and PC leaders want to double their 3 seats (out of the 40 Welsh Seats available). Cleverly they haven't put Welsh autonomy or independence at the centre of their campaign, realising that it isn't a big enough vote winner in a country where overall nationalist feeling is quite low. Instead they're focussing on green issues, disillusionment with Labour and the 'expenses scandal' - presenting themselves as a good alternative to the 3 main parties.
Prediction: Could well hit the magic 6-seats mark. Importantly a lot of Plaid candidates will be playing the long game and using this election to set themselves up as serious contenders for 2014.

The Northern Irish Parties
Northern Ireland has its own parties - generally split along community lines. The scene is dominated by Sinn Fein (nationalist) and the Democratic Unionist Party (unionist). At the moment Sinn Fein hold 5 seats (but won't take them up because their MPs won't swear allegiance to the Queen) and the DUP hold 9.

The smaller Nationalist SDLP holds 3 seats and the UUP, which was once the main unionist force in Northern Irish politics, hold just 1.

The shake-up this time round is going to be the newly formed Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force: an alliance of the UUP and David Cameron's Conservatives. It’s an attempt to reinvigorate the UUP and gain the Conservatives an extra few seats, which could be very valuable in the case of a hung parliament or small majority. They're going to have a tough job though, because unionist support is still pretty focussed on the DUP.

The DUP does have a new contender in the form of the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV). This party is made up of disillusioned hardliner DUP members who are opposed to sharing power with Sinn Fein. They're contesting 10 seats and are likely to benefit from the recent devolution of policing powers (which gives Sinn Fein a say over policing) and the Iris Robinson scandal (which discredited the DUP).

Prediction: Sinn Fein, DUP and SDLP share of seats will stay pretty stable. TUV might manage to gain 1 from their DUP rivals but won't make massive inroads. The Ulster Conservative and Unionist New Force will struggle to save the old UUP - they'll probably hold their solitary seat and might make 1 or 2 gains but nothing substantial. Still, that won't bother Cameron who'll be grateful for every extra seat he can secure.

The Green Party
Last time around the Greens managed to secure 1% of the UK vote, but a wide geographical dispersal meant this didn't translate into any seats. This time they'll be using public awareness of climate change and disillusionment with the 'big three' to push themselves as a decent alternative. There'll be more than 300 Green candidates standing but the only real battleground will be Brighton Pavilion - where leader Caroline Lucas will be looking to build on her good performance in 2005. Back then she came third but it was a close race and there's a genuine possibility she could steal it. The bookies are offering the same odds on the Greens winning a seat or not. It's all to play for.
Prediction: Very hard to call. I'd love to see them do it so I'm going to stick my neck out and say 1 seat for the Greens.

UK Independence Party (UKIP)
UKIP don't have any seats at the moment and that's not likely to change. The EU is simply not the big issue at the moment and although they've tried to present themselves as more than a single-issue party they just don't have the support to make real electoral gains.

Where they are likely to make an impact is in stealing votes off the Conservatives. Where the Conservatives are trying to oust an incumbent with a big majority every single vote will count so even a few hundred potential Tory voters putting their cross in the UKIP box could make a big difference. Some Conservative candidates are trying to come to agreements with UKIP rivals to stop their vote being split but there is no national agreement.

Interestingly UKIP leader Nigel Farage is going to try and oust Speaker John Bercow in Buckingham but considering Bercow has an 18 000 majority that's pretty unlikely.

Prediction: To the frustration of Cameron's boys UKIP will nick votes off the Conservatives and may damage them in some constituencies. However, they won't get any seats themselves; William Hill are offering 2/1 on a UKIP seat but you'd be chucking your money away.

British National Party (BNP)
Nick Griffin's BNP have made gains in recent years and disillusionment with the 'big three' (especially Labour) will probably win them a few more votes. Having said that, there is no massive groundswell of support and a lot of people who sympathise with their views will still be reluctant to put a cross by the name of their local fascist. The BNP are contesting a lot of seats including 40 in East England, 29 in the North East, 14 in Scotland and 12 in Wales but they won't win any of them.
Prediction: Expect an increase in their (0.7%) share of the vote and a lot of ranting about the will of the British people. Don't expect BNP members in the Commons.
William Hill is offering 1/4 on the BNP not winning ant seats- could be easy money.

Respect grew out of the 2003 anti-war movement and contested 30 seats held by pro-war Labour MPs in the 2005 election. A surge of opposition to Tony Blair, solidarity with the Iraqis and organisation by the UK's left-wing protest movement put George Galloway into Parliament as a Respect MP. Division in the ranks, dressing up as a cat on Big Brother and the withdrawal of troops from Iraq will see him out.
Prediction: Respect has had its moment. George Galloway should clear his desk.

Scottish Socialist Party (SSP)
Along with Respect, one of the larger very left-wing forces in British politics. The SSP has a handful of seats in the Scottish Parliament and is well known for its radical campaigns including 'fuck abstinence' (regarding sex education) and 'make capitalism history'. They're likely to gain votes off the back of disillusioned Labour voters but will struggle to gain representation at Westminster due to the electoral system.
Prediction: More votes, no seats.

Independent Kiddiminster Hospital and Health Concern
Dr. Richard Taylor stormed to a massive victory in 2001 on a single-issue ticket of keeping Kiddiminster Hospital open. Though his majority dropped in 2005 he is a popular MP who focuses on health issues but has diversified to get involved in other major political debates.
The Liberal Democrats are standing a candidate against him this time around (they chose not to in 2001 and 2005) but his supporters are still optimistic.
Prediction: Another 4 years for Doctor Taylor.

So that’s my take on the ‘biggest of the smallest’. Expect to see a bit more of them in the coming weeks...and a lot more of them if we’re left with a hung parliament after May 6th.