HL Deb 30 May 1962 vol 241 cc257-66

6.17 p.m.

LORD SILKN rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware that considerable confusion and inconvenience are frequently caused to persons voting in municipal elections owing to the multiplicity of candidates and of the various Parties from whom they have to choose; and whether, in order to help electors, they will consider permitting candidates to have indicated on the ballot papers the political Party (if any) to which they belong. The noble Lord said: My Lords, it is somewhat of an anticlimax to pass from this weighty and important debate to a question which has arisen as a result of the recent municipal elections. My only apology is that municipal elections are an important factor in our democratic system of government, and if we are to maintain our democracy we must be quite sure that their foundation is satisfactory and really does reflect the views of the people as a whole. We know that in municipal elections we get a relatively small proportion of the electors voting; and while I do not suggest for a moment that this is due entirely, or even largely, to the subject of the Question that I am putting this afternoon, I think that is a factor.

The first part of my Question is To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware that considerable confusion and inconvenience are frequently caused to persons voting in municipal elections owing to the multiplicity of candidates and of the various Parties from whom they have to choose … We recently had elections in London, which come about every three years. Fortunately for me, at any rate, I have a vote in the municipal elections, although not in the Parliamentary elections. I decided to exercise my right, and I went to the polling station. I did not know who were the candidates from my own Party. I think I had some literature from the other Parties, but, as I am sure is generally the case, one tends to throw that into the wastepaper basket. But I had none from my own Party. So I was at a loss to know what to do. Fortunately, there was a very courteous gentleman at the door belonging to the (Party of noble Lords opposite who was willing to assist me in every possible way.

My first question to him was whether my Party had any candidates in my ward, and the answer was, "Yes"; and he was good enough to give me their names. That was fortunate for me, because there were, I think, 27 candidates on the list, and it would have been quite impossible for me to guess, from the names of the candidates, which particular Party they represented. Indeed, I should have been misled, because several of my Party's candidates had double-barrelled names, and those are usually associated with members of the Party opposite. However, it was fortunate that I was able to get that information; and I imagine that that would apply wherever one went—that the people at the door, whatever the Party to which they belong, are usually helpful, irrespective of the Party for which an elector is endeavouring to vote. I may say that I did not give my name or anything of that sort: I was to the man at the door just an ordinary elector, seeking to vote for my Party; and he was good enough to give me those names. But that is a very unsatisfactory way of voting.

In an election that I know of in 1959, there were actually 36 candidates; there were nine vacancies, and there were four Parties putting up a full complement of candidates. How any elector could be expected to carry the names in his head, or, where the Parties were not in a position to issue the normal election cards, how he could ascertain who were the particular candidates for whom he should vote, I cannot guess. It is a source of great confusion and inconvenience, to those who want to exercise their franchise, to ascertain who are the candidates of their particular Party. This is not, of course, a matter for one Party alone. I have been prompted to put this Question by a number of people of all Parties, who have experienced difficulties similar to mine. I am not at all sure that it is a matter that my own Party will even support. I am putting this entirely as a personal matter.

Therefore, in the first part of my Question I ask whether the Government are aware, and would agree, that there is this confusion and inconvenience in municipal elections. I think it applies more to London than to other places, although it does apply to a considerable extent in the minor authorities throughout the country. But in the Provinces, where their elections are held every year—one-third of the council has to be elected—it is, of course, a smaller problem than it is in London.

The second part of my Question is whether the Government would consider (and I am asking them only to consider) the possibility of permitting candidates to indicate their Party by the side of their names on the ballot paper, so that the elector will know exactly for which Party each of the candidates stands. I realise that that is a somewhat controversial point. I believe that when, some years ago, the political Parties were asked to consider this specific matter (and I think the noble Earl who is to reply will confirm this) the general view was that there was a danger of confusion, because some candidates might fly under colours which were not truly their own. They might deliberately adopt the description of another candidate in order to cause confusion. There is also the question of independents Who might decide that they would like an additional name—Independent-Conservative or Independent-Labour—which again might cause confusion.

I would say that, by and large, this is a minor point, and not a major one. I think the possibility of confusion in the description of Parties is remote. It could happen—I suppose that it has happened—but, by and large, candidates for election will prefer to stand for their own Party, and not for some other Party; and they will not desire to get in by false pretences. But it would be possible, I suggest, to devise a scheme by which this could be done only by agreement between the Parties, or possibly between the candidates. If in any specific election, in any specific ward, there was no agreement among the candidates themselves that this description should be given on the ballot papers, then, if the Government feared that this difficulty would arise, they would not introduce this system. I think it could be done if the Government decided to do it, certainly in England and Wales, without legislation. I understand that there are certain rules which are applicable to municipal elections, and it would be merely a matter of altering the rules. I am not sure about that, and perhaps the noble Earl will be better informed and can tell us.

Whether it requires legislation, or whether it can be done by an amendment of rules, I think that this is a matter worthy of consideration. Confusion is widespread, and, with the multiplicity of Parties, we are more and more finding the difficulty that the elector does not know how he is voting. I have spoken to people who have been present at the count, and some of the ways in which electors have voted have been clear evidence that they were certainly not voting for Parties; nor were they voting for individuals. They probably had one name in mind, and no idea who the others were, and they did the best they could. That is not exercising the franchise in a proper way, and I therefore hope that the noble Earl will be able to say this afternoon, not that he accepts my suggestion, but that this is something which is worthy of further consideration, and that the Government will be prepared to consider it, and perhaps even ask the Parties whether they would like to think again. After all, the last word in these matters was not said in the year 1948. We have had a great deal of experience since then, and it may well be that, in the light of the greater confusion which exists to-day as compared with 1948, they will be prepared to take a different view. I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

6.28 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise for not having put my name down to speak on this Question, but, having read it, I felt bound to support its contents. I am a vice-president of an organisation known as the National Union of Ratepayers' Associations, which sponsors candidates, particularly in country areas. Its Party affiliations are none, although some people think, quite wrongly, that the motives are with the Party on these Benches. I think the problem here is largely governed by the multiplicity of candidates, and types of candidates, now standing at local elections, and by the increased amount of Party politics now in local government.

I feel that there is a great deal of substance in this Question, particularly as some people when they vote do not always wish to vote for all three Party candidates. Some like to vote for one from one Party and two from another. Therefore I think that legislation as is suggested in the Question which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has asked would help along these lines. I would just say that it is not only in London that this problem occurs. In fact, London is perhaps easier than some of the rural areas where there are a number of splinter groups contesting, such as Independents and Ratepayers' Association as well as the Labour, Liberal and Conservative Parties. It is nothing new to have perhaps six different Parties as such contesting a seat on a rural district council. Therefore I urge my noble friend to take careful note of what the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has said, with all his great experience in local government.

6.32 p.m.


My Lords, I also must apologise for not having given notice of intention to speak, although it was only during the course of Lord Silkin's argument that I decided there was a word or two I desired to say; and it will be only a word or two. I am always sorry to disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, when I do disagree with him, because I always enjoy hearing his exposition of the arguments that he so ably puts forward to your Lordships. But upon this occasion, although I do not doubt for a moment that the noble Lord is right when he said that the Party affiliations of municipal election candidates would need sufficient advertisement, I very much doubt whether the place for providing that advertisement is the ballot paper. I feel very sure it is not, because I strongly feel that even in these days the man is much more important than the machine. I believe that when electors go to the polls and place their mark against the name of a human being, with no affiliation of any kind present on the face of that document, that brings home to the people, in a way that nothing else can, the fact that at an election people vote for people and not for Party machines. Therefore, although I sympathise a good deal with the reasons behind the proposition put forward by the noble Lord, I do not believe that he has propounded the right solution by suggesting that Party affiliations should appear upon the face of ballot papers at any elections.

6.35 p.m.


My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Silkin said, he brings forward a subject to your Lordships after the debate initiated by his noble friend Lord Nathan which covered the whole world-wide defences of this country, and the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, brings us back home with a Question which must affect every single member of our democracy. I very much agree with him in what he said, and I have a great sympathy with the noble Lord—in fact, I may say, a great personal sympathy. I can, I think, claim a little "oneup-manship" on him because at the last Election I remembered for the first time to take the little card that the Party sent out and I had no difficulty at the polling station, which is, I understand, within the same borough as that in which the noble Lord was carrying out his vote. However, whether the noble Lord would have received such courtesy at the hands of the Conservative representative outside the station had he gone to this same station, I do not know. I can only say I know that some Conservative representatives outside such stations might have made one or two rather old-fashioned comments to the noble Lord or anybody else who was in such a position.

I appreciate the difficulty which the noble Lord has put before us, but nevertheless I think that if we go out to solve it in the manner he has suggested to your Lordships, we shall create a much greater difficulty for the electors. I beg to put before your Lordships that it is not a minor difficulty, as the noble Lord said, but that it is indeed a major one, and one of considerable complexity.

It is quite clear that the present law—and the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, asked me this—does not allow a candidate to have indicated on the ballot paper his political Party or any political Party. It is also clear that amending legislation would be necessary if we were to change the present state of affairs as the noble Lord would like. It is also clear that the description of the candidate upon the ballot paper must be identical to his description on his nomination paper. In 1947 the Carr Committee sat to consider electoral law reform, as the noble Lord has said. The main political Parties were represented on this Committee, which recommended that the use of Party labels on nomination papers should not be permitted. I want to read just a brief extract from that Report. It said: At a recent election there was a question whether the words 'Labour candidate' were a proper description. We understand that the organisations representing the chief political Parties are not in favour of the use of Party labels on nomination papers. We concur in this opinion. A man's claim to membership of a Party might sometimes provoke embarrassing controversy. In any event we think the nomination paper should describe the candidate and not the cause. This opinion acknowledges that the whole of our election law is based on the recognition of the individual and not the Party, and that is the point that the noble Lord opposite, Lord Airedale, brought out—I think he said, "the man and not the machine." Of course that brings the point of view of the noble Lord and the Liberal Party in agreement with the Government, something which is not exactly fashionable on this side of the House at the present time.

No objection was raised during the passage of the Representation of the People Bill, or, as it is now, the Act of 1949, when it was going through another place. It is true that there was a technical point raised. The present agreed prohibition on Party labels on the ballot paper results from the long acceptance in this country of the view that we vote for the man and not for the Party. This view has been accepted by the principal Party organisations and, as I have shown, was unanimously endorsed by the Carr Committee on electoral law reform on which the main Parties were represented. Apart from this objection in principle, there would also be a substantial practical difficulty in allowing a candidate to include a Party affiliation on the ballot Paper: the official Party machine could not guarantee the authenticity of the label.

I do not see how it would be possible to prevent a person from putting on his nomination paper "Conservative" or "Labour" or "Liberal" when in fact he does not belong to the Party whose name appears on his nomination paper. This is the point that the noble Lord brought up, and he suggested that it could be got round in some manner. But I think that it is a very complex point and presents us with a major difficulty. I do not think that the Parties would be happy to find themselves in this difficulty, as they would have no control over a candidate who might masquerade under a Party label and yet not be a member of that Party, let alone one of that Party's properly chosen candidates.

I would just put this to the noble Lord—and I do thoroughly appreciate the difficulty which he has explained to us: I think that it is not unreasonable that electors should be required to take sufficient interest in their local authority candidates to be sure before they go into the polling booth, that they represent their own political views. I do not mean of course to cast any aspersions upon the noble Lord. It was an accident presumably; he could not find his paper or he was not sent one—I would not know—and anybody could be in exactly the same position. Nevertheless, I think all of us ought to take just that little extra interest when we can in the local authority elections.

Since the noble Lord put down this Question, my attention has been drawn to a brief report in a newspaper about a candidate at a local election earlier this month who disclosed after she had been defeated that, although she stood as a member of one Party, she in fact belonged to another. That brings out the sort of difficulty that could be encountered.

The noble Lord has explained that confusion may exist under the present arrangements, and I acknowledge all that he says. But at least it cannot be said that under the present arrangements voters are misled by the information on the ballot paper. Whatever the views of the Parties might be on this Question to-day (and I agree that we certainly know what they were when this question was last put to them, some time ago), we have to consider the position of the returning officer who has to pronounce as to the validity of a nomination paper. He would be placed in an intolerable position if he had to judge between the claims of a candidate to be a member of one Party whatever it might be, and the objections of those who held that he was no such thing. I have much sympathy with the noble Lord's suggestion. I appreciate that absence of Party labels may be confusing to some electors in multi-member wards who are faced with a whole string of candidates' names on the ballot paper. That, of course, applies particularly to the boroughs in London. But, for the reasons I have given, I do not think Her Majesty's Government would be justified in proposing to the other Parties that the law should be changed in the way the noble Lord proposes.

If I might suggest it, I think the remedy is for the local Party organisations to make it clear in their election literature who their candidates are. As the noble Lord has mentioned, tellers normally wear a rosette or some colour to identify their Parties. They can stand at the entrance to polling stations, and there is no reason why they should not give a list of the Party candidates to anybody who asks. No doubt they already do this, but I know that there is a limit to what can be done. There is a limit to what can be done by members of all Parties and even more by individual candidates.

Nevertheless, in the end it does come back to the question of what the Parties can put over to individual electors. Should there be any reason for the Parties to change their minds to bring their thinking into line with what the noble Lord has said, I would of course put that before my right honourable friend. I pay great attention to what my noble friend Lord Auckland has said, and I trust that his organisation will nominate a whole string of candidates in my borough next time; I assure him that I shall vote for every one of them if they can say that they will put down the rates and, what is more, do in fact put the rates down in following years. But I do not know whether they would be able to do that. As I say, I have much sympathy for what the noble Lord has put forward, but for the time being we have no information that the Parties would wish Her Majesty's Government to change the existing arrangements.