HC Deb 14 September 2004 vol 424 cc1137-9 1.12 pm
Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about the order of names on ballot papers used in elections where more than one candidate is to be elected; and for connected purposes. In all elections in the United Kingdom, the names of candidates are currently listed on the ballot paper in alphabetical order using the surname. When the election concerns parties, such as in the European elections, they are also listed alphabetically. Consequently, someone with the surname "Blair" would find themselves listed above someone with the surname "Howard", or, indeed, Kennedy. The Ant Liberation party, should such a party exist, would appear above the Bring-Back-Doctor-Who party or the Flat Earth party.

That does not seem surprising, as it is the case in many areas of life. At school, our registers were listed alphabetically and when hon. Members vote in this place, our names are recorded in Hansard alphabetically by surname. So why should that easily administered and well understood part of the electoral process change?

The ballot paper is fundamental to our democracy. No candidate or party should receive advantage from the ballot paper. If the political process is not fair and equitable to all candidates, it strikes at the heart at our system of democracy. In June 2003, the Electoral Commission produced a report entitled "Ballot Paper Design", which covered a range of issues regarding ballot papers, including alphabetical listing of candidates. After extensive consultation, it considered whether alphabetical discrimination exists: whether candidates with surnames towards the end of the alphabet are less likely to be elected because their names appear lower down the ballot paper, and whether there was evidence that electors were more inclined to vote for those nearer the top of the ballot paper for no reason other than reading those names first.

In the consultation process, the Electoral Commission received little evidence to suggest that, in single-vacancy elections, there is any bias towards those higher up the ballot paper. An analysis of the 2001 election showed an almost equal split between the positions on the ballot paper in which the winning candidates were placed.

My concern arises not from single-vacancy elections but from those where more than one candidate are elected. This year, for example, several local authority councils, such as my authority of Sheffield, were elected on new ward boundaries. That necessitated the election of all members of the council, whereas normally one third of the council is elected. In talking to hon. Members, I found that many provided anecdotal evidence of discrimination which they believed affected candidates placed lower down the ballot paper. Although in many circumstances that is not sufficient to affect the outcome of the election, in some it might.

The Electoral Commission shares that concern and cites academic research analysing the London borough elections in 1994 and the English shire district elections in 1995. The research showed that a smaller proportion of ballots was cast for candidates in the middle or at the bottom of the alphabetical order. It also showed that, among voters who cast all the available votes for one party's candidates, there was a marked bias towards those listed higher in the alphabetical order. Several councils also provided evidence that, when ballot papers had 12 or more candidates for three seats, a significant number of voters used only one or two votes—appearing not to find the third from the favoured party on the ballot paper.

Other factors, such as incumbency, influence the outcome of elections but research that included those factors still demonstrates a bias towards those with names at the start of the alphabet.

There is little evidence that parties or candidates seek to exploit the alphabetical listing by changing their surnames. For example, we have yet to see the appearance of a Robert Aardvark-Silk. I doubt that, if I sought election in a multi-vacancy election, I would choose to use my husband's name to bump me up the ballot paper from "M" to "B"—although, as he is called Bates, I would find myself above many famous names—Blair, Blunkett and Brown, to name but three.

Australia, which uses a randomised system for ballot papers, has experience of people seeking advantage. A famous example is the 1937 Senate election in New South Wales, when four candidates were elected with the names Armour, Armstrong, Arnold and Ashley.

In the case of the use of party lists, such as in the European elections, a campaigning organisation could well try to highlight its cause by adopting a name beginning with "A", in the way some companies do to secure first listing in the "Yellow Pages" telephone directory. A recent article in the Financial Times highlighted concerns that, under the alphabetical system, the British National party usually appears at the top of the list.

Residents of London know that, as part of mayoral elections, they are sent a booklet that includes the manifestos of all the candidates. After the first mayoral election, some candidates complained that the public were likely to read only the first few manifestos, and that that gave an advantage to those with names higher up the alphabet. For the election held earlier this year, a randomised system was adopted, with lots being drawn and candidates' manifestos appearing in the booklet in the order in which they had been drawn. However, the practice of listing candidates on the ballot paper in alphabetical order remained.

Many countries list candidates alphabetically on their ballot papers, but a research project on voting systems, the Epic project, found 16 countries that use randomisation for elections to their first Chamber, including Australia, Belgium and Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have not made a detailed study of the different forms of randomisation that are used. However, in Australia, there is a double randomisation system, whereby all candidates are first randomly allocated a number and then the numbers are drawn again. That determines the outcome on the ballot paper. The process is not unduly bureaucratic and burdensome on returning officers and, in my view, would not therefore be in any way detrimental to the process. I understand that drawing lots for the publication of manifestos for the London mayoral election took place openly and was seen to be satisfactory.

The Electoral Commission, in its report on ballot paper design, goes on to suggest that party candidates could be grouped together and that that would assist both electors and counting clerks. That would be achieved by substituting party for candidate in the first draw and then by further randomisation of the candidates' names in the party block.

I am not seeking to add to our view of the world another form of discrimination—that of alphabetism—although my experience of talking to hon. Members whose name begins with "W", a number of whom are in the Chamber today, is that they can tell of many instances in which they feel that their position in the alphabet has affected them. I am seeking to ensure that our electoral system should address the concern that, in elections in which more than one candidate is to be elected, there should be no possibility that having a name beginning with a letter near the beginning of the alphabet could confer an advantage.

Pamela Gordon, the Electoral Commissioner who chaired the review of ballot paper design, has stated:

The design of ballot papers and nomination of candidates are two crucial areas of election administration. The public's ability to access democracy is dependent on their effectiveness. The randomisation of names through a system similar to that used in Australia would not be cumbersome or difficult to understand. It would provide the reassurance that accidents of birth—or, indeed, marriage—are not influencing our democratic process and affecting the outcome of elections.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Ms Meg Munn, Mr. Andrew Mackay, Mr. Andy Reed, Jonathan Shaw, Mr. Barry Sheerman, Dr. Alan Whitehead, Brian White and Mr. Phil Willis.