Why you should care

Because, especially in politics these days, sometimes a third (or fourth) choice is necessary.

When I meet with Vanessa Hudson at a vegan café in graffitied East London, she looks made for TV — like the former MTV and Viacom producer she used to be — with a sleek white jacket over an ink-dark tank, black tights and swept-back blond hair. It’s quite the change from a year ago, when, before running for mayor of Tower Hamlets, a nearby borough, she tried to draw attention to animal rights by campaigning to neighbors while wearing a costume of a pig. She stopped, though, following complaints that her porky wardrobe might offend Muslims (so the next time she stumped for votes, she dressed up as a fox instead). “However we can get these issues aired, we’ll do it,” says Hudson, who’s the leader of the U.K.’s Animal Welfare Party.

Hudson’s schtick may seem a bit, well, apish, but she and other leaders of third parties are growing more popular around the world. Independent electoral candidates pushing their own small economic interests have been popping up in India and Malaysia, for instance, while an unusual election season in the U.S. has seen outsiders such as Andrew McAfee, Michael Bloomberg and Kanye West each discuss their own presidential runs at one point or another. “With Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, people are realizing there are only two choices: Cocoa Puffs and Frosted Flakes,” says Doug Craig, an at-large board member of the national Libertarian Party in the U.S. “They’re finally saying: I want something better, different. I want Cheerios.” And, in Europe, experts say there’s a similar feeling that’s spreading. “Third — or fourth or fifth! — parties have become a channel for popular — and populist — anger,” notes Nicholas Wright, a political scientist with University College London.

Similar parties both there and in Germany have also won seats in the European Parliament, a historic breakthrough for what was long a fledgling pro-animal movement.

Enter Hudson and her Animal Welfare Party, which is based on the Dutch Party known as Partij voor de Dieren, or the Party for the Animals. Though it sounds fringe, this party that pushes to ban animal experimentation and racing has more than 20 elected officials in the Netherlands. Similar parties both there and in Germany have also won seats in the European Parliament, a historic breakthrough for what was long a fledgling pro-animal movement. With Hudson at the helm, the British-party equivalent received roughly 1 percent of the vote in those 2014 EU elections. “Overall, we were pleased with that,” she says. Today, the party is pushing to bring more attention to its cause — an area Hudson is particularly suited for.

After starting her career working in TV news, the 43-year-old says she contracted projects that included animations for LinkedIn and video shorts for Land Rover. (“I don’t bring politics into my work as a producer,” she says.) In the late ’90s, she witnessed the transfer of Hong Kong to China after a century of British rule. “We were witnessing the end of an era,” she says. “It taught me that sometimes you don’t see what the story is for years to come.” It’s a sentiment that also applies to her animal advocacy, which began when she decided to become vegetarian at the age of 7, after playing witness to the local chicken slaughterhouse while growing up in rural Nottinghamshire. As an adult, in 2009, she attended her first Animal Welfare Party meeting — then called Animals Count — while hoping to film a documentary. But after a couple of meetings she ditched that plan, joined the party and was elected its leader within a year.

With carefully worded precision and no small amount of self-awareness, Hudson rolls out the party’s practical aims: To redirect EU subsidies away from livestock, launch Europe-wide campaigns about plant-based diets and cut public money spent on animal products and refined sugar, among others. Like any true believer, Hudson comes across sanctimonious at times, particularly when she compares today’s “speciesism” to the civil rights or women’s suffrage movements. Throughout, she treads carefully to present herself as “calm and clearheaded,” challenging the stereotype that protest parties are unreasonable. Since taking over, Hudson’s had success broadening the still-lesser-known group through celebrity appeal, and popular Brit singer Morrisey, front man of the Smiths, is reportedly considering a run at London mayor under the party’s banner (but didn’t respond to requests for comment).

While Hudson’s party is fronting three candidates in a May 5 vote, they’re likely to be overshadowed in the press by the looming Brexit vote coming later this summer. And her own record in politics is far from ideal: During her mayoral run, Hudson garnered only a couple hundred votes — hardly enough to make the kind of change she wanted.

Yet even if Hudson’s slate doesn’t win the forthcoming elections, their real victory will be in seeing other parties adopt some of their policies. “That’s almost as useful as being elected,” says Hudson. And in the U.S., that type of voice makes libertarian folks like Craig a tad jealous: “Other people get to hear the ideas of third parties in Europe,” he says. “In America, a lot of times we’re shut out of that debate.”

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The route to the White House: news, stories and analysis from on and off the presidential campaign trail.