HC Deb 12 December 1967 vol 756 cc222-6

3.55 p.m.

Mr. Denis Coe (Middleton and Prestwich)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable reference to be made on nomination and ballot papers at parliamentary and local elections to the political or other allegiances of candidates, and to make provision to avoid inaccurate use of such allegiances.

Since introducing a similar Motion last Session—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members leave the Chamber quietly.

Mr. Coe

Since introducing a similar Motion last Session, I have been encouraged by the support I have received from both individuals and associations. Recent local elections have persuaded people that this matter is somewhat urgent. As we move towards larger units of local government, perhaps towards regional councils, it is impossible for electors personally to know all the candidates standing at an election. It is, therefore, inevitable that they vote according to the party allegiances of the candidates. The G.L.C. elections earlier this year provided electorates in excess of 200,000 and electors were expected to remember the names of up to four candidates from among as many as 21. This demands a prodigious feat of memory, but for many years before that, in parish and rural district councils, the number of candidates has been large, so that that problem is not new to local elections.

One dramatic consequence to be observed at the G.L.C. elections was the large number of electors who did not use their full quota of votes. In some London boroughs, this was in excess of 10,000. I suggest that this was because those electors could not remember the names of all the candidates they wished to vote for so that, rather than vote for someone they would be against, they did not use their full quotas. This situation would be avoided if political allegiances were shown on the ballot papers.

Again, there is some evidence that the alphabetical order on the ballot paper influences voting habits. The Bill would also avoid that difficulty. Where candidates have the same or similar names, an even more spectacular result can occur. Where—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is difficult for an hon. Member to address the House against a whole series of background conversations.

Mr. Coe

As I was saying, where candidates have the same or similar names, the difficulties can be spectacular. The best example in the G.L.C. elections was at Wandsworth. There was a very well-known retiring Labour councillor called Pritchard. He got 6,000 votes less than his Labour colleagues on the ballot paper while a Liberal candidate also called Pritchard obtained 6,000 more votes than his Liberal colleagues. Thus, confusion over names can seriously affect results and this, too, would be avoided by the Bill.

I have drawn examples from local government because the difficulty is most urgent there. My Bill, however, would also cover parliamentary elections. I draw the attention of the House to the confusion in Anglesey when, in 1955, on the ballot paper, there were three candidates called Hughes and one called Jones. In 1964, it was the other way round— there were three Joneses and one Hughes. In the light of possible confusion, I am sorry that Mr. Speaker's Conference has recently recommended no change and that political allegiances should not appear on the nomination and ballot papers of parliamentary elections.

In my view, therefore, on the grounds of size of electorates, the dominant rôle of party politics today, the confusion which arises from large numbers of candidates, their places on the ballot papers and similarity of names, my Bill would be a practical way of helping the electors to vote for the candidates of their choice.

While many people would accept the principle of the Bill, some believe that it would be difficult to carry out in practice. There is the danger that party labels might be used indiscriminately and, therefore, might cause more confusion. Equally, there is the task of adjudicating between labels, which could hardly be left to a returning officer. I believe that too much can be made of this, but in that it is a legitimate fear my Bill would endeavour to overcome these difficulties by the registration of party labels.

The actual details could be further discussed in Committee, but broadly, the first provision would be to change Schedules 2 and 3 of the Representation of the People Act 1949, so that political and other allegiances could be added to existing descriptions. Secondly, my Bill would provide for the registration of parties by the Registrar of Friendly Societies and this would enable a party or association which was so registered to have the sole use of that particular label. This would not hinder individuals from standing for election, because they would continue to be independent, and that would be shown by the fact that no political allegiance would appear after their names on the ballot paper.

There is nothing new in this principle. It is followed in other countries which register parties and insert the allegiances of candidates on ballot papers, but, unlike some other countries, we would retain the right of individuals to stand for election without party assistance. It will be said that I wish to make voting too easy for the electorate who should know the names of candidates. To me, the important democratic act is when the Sectors go to the polling stations and put their crosses against the names of the candidates of their choice; and if my Bill helps them to do that, it is of some importance.

Lastly, it is said that my Bill would recognise political parties. Indeed it would, and why not? Surely we should have sufficient confidence in our political system to be prepared to recognise not only that political parties exist, but that our political system would fail if they did not. While party politics have their excesses, they also have their virtues in addition to being established fact. The Bill would, therefore, go some way to raise the status of parties in the eyes of the electorate and have a beneficial effect on the democratic system as a whole.

For all those reasons I ask the House for leave to bring in a Bill which would be widely welcomed and would have a modest influence for good on our Parliamentary democracy.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Coe, Dr. Ernest A. Davies, Mr. Hamling, Mr. Alexander W. Lyon, Mr. Tinn, and Mr. David Watkins.


Bill to enable reference to be made on nomination and ballot papers at parliamentary and local elections to the political or other allegiances of candidates, and to make provision to avoid inaccurate use of such allegiances, presented accordingly, and read the First time; to be read a Second time upon Friday, 22nd March, 1968, and to be printed. [Bill 48.]

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