In less than six weeks, voters across England will go to the polls to decide who will represent them on their local council. Yes, it’s that time of year. Again.
Thousands of seats are up for grabs in all 32 London boroughs and more than 150 councils of varying types, from metropolitan to rural district.
The main parties are gearing up for the fight, with Jeremy Corbyn launching Labour’s campaign in Greater Manchester this week - promising a “referendum on austerity”.
The Tories are signalling they will attempt to drum up support by claiming Labour manifesto commitments to spend £60bn will lead to council tax rises. But the Conservatives are publicly talking down the prospect of Tory gains and privately bracing themselves for a hammering - especially in the capital, where ministers fear a “wipeout” of flagship Tory strongholds.
Whatever happens, May 3′s results will provide the hook for a plethora of analyses. How secure is Theresa May’s future? What is Labour’s exact distance from Downing Street now? Will Brexit help spark a revival of Lib Dem fortunes?
But outside the main narratives, hundreds of hopefuls have been pounding the streets for weeks, knocking on doors and asking poll-weary punters to consider an alternative.
HuffPost UK caught up with a selection of the smaller parties running this year’s race, from the brand new - Advance set up in Kensington and Chelsea in the wake of the Grenfell fire; to the very old - the Liberal Party was one of the Big Two in the 18th and 19th century and still stands candidates today.
Advance is spearheaded by Annabel Mullin, a former Lib Dem candidate who decided the time had come to strike out on her own.
The working mum has amassed a sizeable following in her local community, which continues to struggle with the aftermath of its towerblock tragedy, although she is not standing as a candidate herself this time around.
“Only one of our candidates has ever done any campaigning before,” she said.
“We have had an amazing response on the doorstep so far. There are those who say ‘no thanks, I am Tory or Labour’, but we are getting more persuadables than we ever expected.
“One guy who was a Conservative member even invited us in to chat because he said he was so fed up about the state of his party.
“We are focusing on manageable, common sense solutions to local problems and giving the local community a proper voice.
“The financial mismanagement of the council currently is shameful. They are putting council tax up by 6%, and blaming some of that on Grenfell - for which their shortcuts were to blame - and now residents are having to pay the price.”
Crowdfunding is allowing Advance to run a slick, professional operation. Its 20 candidates have their own personalised leaflets and are out campaigning as much as their day jobs allow.
We joined founder members Claire van Helfteren and Nadia Boujettef as they prepared to chat to people near Portobello Road late in the afternoon.
Nadia, a trainee teacher and mum-of-two, lost friends in Grenfell and her two nieces live in the shadow of the burnt-out block.
She tells us she is sick of the same “red and blue” candidates being put up for re-election year after year and wants councillors to be elected on fixed 10-year terms.
“It needs to be fresh, there needs to be change,” she says.
“The councillors who are currently sitting need to be mentoring the next generation.
“My mum and dad came over here in the 1950s from Morocco and set up a community group. I have lived here all my life, born and bred, and now live in social housing,” she said.
“I have always been very community-orientated, but after Grenfell it focused the mind. We realised people who we thought knew what they were doing had no idea.
“We need more diversity in the borough - the people making decisions need to look more like the community they represent.”
″People aren’t being listened to and we feel it’s time to shake things up a bit,” says Claire, a lawyer.
“We believe local politics should be about local people.”
She says one of the biggest challenges is persuading dyed-in-the-wool traditional party voters to consider a break from the norm.
“It can be tricky to really show people that even if they still plan to vote Labour or Conservative in a general election, there is an alternative here, because there is a different focus.
“There are councillors from other parties we would be happy to work alongside. Some of them are doing a really good job.”
Chatting to the locals, it’s clear their concerns are not rooted in the intricacies of national party politics.
“We need more dustbins around. I write to the council a lot about it, I email them all the time,” one woman tells Claire.
Asked if she would consider voting for a hyper-local party, she pauses.
“I was traditionally Labour, but I am not happy with Labour any more. So I’m open to it, yeah. I’d definitely consider it.
“Just because I have voted Labour in general elections it doesn’t mean I’m going to in the local elections.”
She’s noted down on a clipboard as a persuadable, as well as a woman who complains that the council have failed to fix a persistent leak in her flat.
Campaigners will come back neared the time to see if those considering supporting them have made up their minds.
Advance will be hoping to be able to tell a success story similar to those of the Canvey Island Independent Party and the Residents’ Associations of Epsom and Ewell.
The former - started in a pub in 2004 - holds both Canvey Island seats on the Conservative-run Essex Council, while the latter has been running Epsom and Ewell Borough Council in Surrey as a collective since the 1930s.
“We started out as two friends sitting having a pint,” Cllr Dave Blackwell explains.
“We were so fed up with all the mainstream parties giving out the same old propaganda and nothing changing and thought ‘wouldn’t it be great to set up our own party’. So we did.
“The ruling Conservative group at the time called it a flash in the pan - then we took five district council seats and they called it a knee-jerk reaction.
“Now, we have 15 out of 17 seats on Canvey, both county council seats and nine out of the 10 town council seats.”
The EU referendum result suggested residents on Canvey are far from happy with the status quo - the borough had the second-highest Leave vote in the country - so what’s their secret to keeping people happy?
“We are local people, I was born here, I’ve lived here all my life. The councillors here know their community,” Dave says.
“Canvey still has one thing that many places don’t have - a real sense of community. It’s like the old east end of London - a lot of people moved from there to here - and we have the highest proportion of people who identify as English rather than British.
“There are a lot of things people aren’t happy with - and we pride ourselves on knowing what those issues are. Most politicians just aren’t out there talking to people. Our local MP [Tory Rebecca Harris] doesn’t even hold an advice surgery here any more.”
Are Canvey Island’s Leave-supporting residents bothered about the Brexit process?
“Most people aren’t the slightest bit bothered about national politics,” Dave adds.
“They are worried about potholes, they’re worried about the price of the number 21 bus going up, about the plans to knock down the local community hall and the fact that the island is gridlocked every single day with commuter traffic.
“And they are sick and tired of reading about all the in-fighting in the main political parties. They don’t want to buy a newspaper and read the same things day in, day out about politicians stabbing each other in the back.
“They couldn’t care less about Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn.”
Dave has been a councillor for 24 years - and used to be a Labour one.
“I jumped ship, because I couldn’t stand being told what to do from somewhere in London,” he says.
“I am here to represent my community. We are independent, we don’t have a party whip, we hold surgeries twice a week in the local library for people to come and talk to us about anything at all.
“We’re not caught up in the Westminster bubble and we haven’t forgotten the people who voted us in. Politics should always be about people, not power.”
Cllr Richard Baker, from Epsom and Ewell, agrees.
The collegiate group of residents’ associations that he is part of have been running services in Surrey for decades - remarkably managing to operate within a surplus budget.
At a time when councils across the country are struggling with deep cuts and spiralling costs, why are things different in one of the main London commuter hotspots?
“We pride ourselves on the collegiate way in which we operate, so no cabinet - everything is run through the main executive committees - strategy and resources; environment and community and wellbeing,” Richard explains.
“I guess why it has operated this way in Epsom and Ewell for so long is that people recognise it’s effective, and it concentrates on local issues.
“We appeal to people across the board - those who would vote Conservative, those who support Labour and people who have voted for UKIP. What delights us is ensuring we reflect what residents want.
“They often say that local politics is all about dog mess on the pavements and to an extent, this is certainly true. It’s about the really nitty gritty stuff - parking and parking restrictions, things like that.”
The associations have traditionally financed local services through a commercial property fund, which historically allowed them to purchase property and preferential rates through loans from the Public Works Board.
But national government is set to put a stop to this, as part of changes to the ways councils can raise income.
Richard says: “Most local councils get a Revenue Support Grant, but this coming year we will lose all of this, and from 2019 onwards we will be paying the government what is known as a Negative Revenue Support Grant, where we will have to pay surplus money back into central coffers.
“We have also been told that in future we will not be able to apply to purchase properties outside the borough - which will greatly restrict our income scheme.”
Other smaller parties are fighting against their local areas being run as a “one-party state”.
The Liberals - led by Steve Radford - are going strong in Liverpool, Peterborough and Devon, with a couple of hundred members nationally.
Eurosceptics, their main problem these days is differentiating themselves from the Lib Dems, borne out of their original movement.
″The Lib Dems change who they are all the time and our biggest difficulty is letting people know we aren’t related to the national Humpty Dumpty party,” Radford says.
“Nobody knows what they stand for. We are far more in tune with what the public are saying.
“We are lobbying for the re-distribution of wealth, as we live in one of the most unequal societies. People cannot afford to move south because of the housing market and it’s creating a distortion in the economy.”
Although generally in favour of Brexit, Radford believes Theresa May should be given the space to get on with the job.
“The Boris Johnsons and the Goves of this world should take a little memory check. Having campaigned for leave, having achieved their result, they should be more responsible and let the government negotiate.
“Some of May’s own ministers are making things unduly negative, raising expectations and endangering the process. They should shut up and do their job and forget the one upmanship.
“But even in Liverpool, where there was a significant Leave vote, I don’t find Brexit is a major issue coming up on the doorstep.
“People are more concerned about spikes in crime and the crisis in our NHS. And unless the opposition parties here get their act together, I think there could be some serious issues coming down the road and we could end up with a Labour one-party state.
“I would urge voters to look beyond party the label, look at the person, and think seriously about whether they want to live in a democracy.”
In Kent, the Tunbridge Wells Alliance is rallying against a clean Conservative sweep, after objecting to the local council’s plans to spend £90 million on a new civic complex.
Founder member Nick Pope said former members of four parties have joined their brand new party, registered just one month ago.
“We are specifically keeping away from national politics,” he says.
“We are focusing on the borough council and the issues they deal with - planning, waste collection, parking. We feel that in times of cuts, the council should be focusing its attentions on better priorities.
“I had no intention of ever getting involved in politics, but at the moment the Conservastives hold about 90% of the seats.
“You could dress anything in blue around here and it would win, so things do need to change.”
Finally, back in London, a Polish prince - and former mayoral candidate - is fielding 100 candidates under his new Polish Pride banner.
Prince John Zylinski - who once challenged Nigel Farage to a duel - says he wants all voters to support the rights of minority groups ahead of the UK’s departure from the EU next year.
Under current laws, all EU citizens living in the UK are entitled to vote in local elections, regardless of whether they are British passport holders.
“The Poles are Britain’s closest allies,” Prince Zylinski says.
“The Battle of Britain was being lost until the Polish pilots arrived. Yet we have virtually no political representation in the UK.
“I intend to fight for the rights all minorities. In my opinion, Nigel Farage and UKIP should be ashamed of the divisions that they have created within the UK, and I want all people to feel safe ahead of Brexit.
“I intend to field up to 100 candidates in targeted wards in London where candidates can win seats by polling little more than 2,000 votes.
“I believe we can achieve this by appealing not only to Poles, but by gaining broad support from all voters who back our call for respect for all minorities.”
While the local elections - which are much more than the opportunity for a protest vote - offer smaller parties the best chance to succeed, is there a real chance of replicating these small pockets of triumph across the country?
Advance’s Nadia has the last word, and it’s unfailingly positive.
“Absolutely. I think here in Kensington and Chelsea, we experienced a tragedy that shocked people into taking notice and taking action. Things are still shaky after Grenfell.
“But there’s no reason why other people can’t do this elsewhere. I’ve had friends come up to me who live all over telling me they wish there was something like this to vote for in their local communities.
“If everyone put local needs first, and looked at things this way, then I think we would all be happier.”