HL Deb 25 January 1999 vol 596 cc838-46

4.49 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow rose to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the order, laid before the House on 23rd November, be annulled (S.I. 1998/2873).

The noble Earl said: My Lords, when I see "prohibited words and expressions" on an Order Paper, I blanch with horror. I hope that when we have stage 1 of the Lords' reform, your Lordships will feel emboldened enough to sling out this little piece of legislation. The present arrangements are that we do not vote against statutory instruments. I was tempted to break that arrangement. Then the noble Lord, Lord Carter, met me in the corridor and I succumbed effortlessly to his charm. I shall not vote against this order or ask your Lordships to do so.

The matter is simple: it is whether people should call themselves Independent Labour, Independent Conservative or Literal Liberal. Ever since the brothers Gracchi in Ancient Rome, there have been arguments about factions in politics. I have been reading a book on George III. He always hoped that factions could come out of politics. Unfortunately, factions have now become entrenched in state, started, as almost all bad things started, by the Conservative Party in the form of Disraeli who invented the modern political party. Others have not been slow to follow that example.

The Independent Labour Party has a long, well-established and historical founding. There was Jimmy Maxton; and a great friend of my father, Andrew Maclaren, who represented the Clydeside constituency in the 1920s, hated private property but managed to make sure that the club of which I am a member bought its own freehold against the advice of the Duke of Devonshire. So one can see how the marvellous, some would say corrupting—others would call it English social mobility—manages to work in this country.

My objection to the order is simple. Should we stop parties being registered as Independent Labour, Independent Conservative, and so on? People should be able to register a party in whatever name they choose. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will say that it will cause confusion; that it will be unfair. It will be the most wonderful apparatchik's answer because he will have been briefed by the department. I promise the noble Lord that I should say exactly the same to my own Front Bench which would have given exactly the same answer had it been in power. So there is an element of plague upon both your houses.

Individuals can stand at national elections as Independent Labour or Independent Conservative. Why should we stop them from standing in this new form of proportional representation for the various new assemblies which have been conjured up for our benefit? The British people are grown up, intelligent and mature enough to understand the difference between the official and unofficial—some would say between the real and unreal.

As one edge of the social spectrum which is not liked by the new First Lord of the Treasury, as an hereditary Peer I pray in aid the old independent Labour working class member. Therefore I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty praying that the Order, laid before the House on 23rd November, be annulled (S.I. 1998/2873).—(The Earl of Onslow.)

4.53 p.m.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe

My Lords, I support the noble Earl. The order epitomises the fact that it is not good legislation. At Second Reading I said that we have to be very careful when the major parties together produce conditions under which people can stand for Parliament. There is great danger of a carve up.

At Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, drew attention to the fact that between 1948 and 1969 party affiliation was not on the ballot paper. I canvassed in 1955, and during local elections collected 2,000 marks on the register in the Cabot Ward of Bristol, West. It was hard work. It was a bind that one had to din in the candidate's name because there was no indication on the ballot paper. However, this order has been brought in to help the parties and to reduce the work to which they are subjected. It has nothing to do with greater democracy. It is to help the parties.

When there was no party affiliation indicated on the ballot party, there was no diminution in turn out at elections. In 1951 Labour polled the highest political vote of any party until that time. I know that that is seized on now by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, as a reason why PR should be brought in. However, I am sure most Members will appreciate that it was the Conservative organisation of the postal vote which brought it to power in 1951.

I do not think that the order is proper. At Second Reading, my noble friend Lady Gould expressed concern that there was no appeal structure; that no proper appeals were possible. The Speaker's Committee is appointed to deal with points raised. However, by definition the Speaker's Committee consists of Members of Parliament who are members of the major parties. Therefore they are interested parties, and there is no clean, independent, procedure.

The legislation is rather rough. In Committee, at col. 409 of the Official Report on 5th November 1998, the Minister, for whom I have the greatest admiration, said that undertakings had been given by the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservative Party and Plaid Cymru and it was his understanding that the Scottish National Party had also said that it will not seek to deceive the voters in that way. Why bother to legislate if we rely on goodwill and people saying, "I'll behave myself'. It is farcical. The Minister continued: Voters are not simple-minded. They are perfectly able to know when deceit is being practised on them". In that case one wonders why we have the legislation brought in. Such is my regard for the Minister and his control of language that I shall not point out that on the following page he was guilty of repetition when he used the phrase "true factual". However, we shall leave that matter aside. It is not right to draw attention to it now.

I hope that my fears are misguided. I should very much like to be proved wrong. We often think that we are tidying up matters but end up in a worse position. An individual with many resources and an unscrupulous aim could almost bring the system to a standstill by abusing the legislation.

4.57 p.m.

Lord Monson

My Lords, I, too, support the noble Earl. It is perfectly true that people will still be able to stand as Independent Labour, Independent Conservative, Independent Liberal candidates, and so on. But they will not be allowed the party political broadcasts, should their numbers be large enough, which would otherwise be justified in the absence of this legislation. To that extent the dice are loaded against the smaller parties which I think is wrong.

4.58 p.m.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, raises an interesting point of discussion which is worth consideration. I am interested to note that among the words and expressions which may not be included, except where Article 2(2)(a) applies, are "Duke" but not "Earl". While the "Duke of Omnium's party" would be a forbidden name, the "Earl of Onslow party" would be allowed. I look forward to an election in which the "Earl of Onslow party" is a registered party.

I have some sympathy with the Motion. At one time the Independent Labour Party was a well known political party which was represented in another place. As I recall history, when the Independent Labour Party was formed no body was known as the Labour Party; the Labour Representational Committee was a different animal. Therefore, there was no possibility of the ILP being confused at that stage with the Labour Party. The ILP was a constituent part of what later became the Labour Party.

Today, the question is whether a party can be registered with the word of "independent" coupled with the name of another party. That does not directly affect the right of somebody to stand in an election under the description of, say, Independent Conservative, Independent Liberal Democrat or Independent Labour. The rule is that someone can stand as a candidate under whatever label he likes unless the returning officer believes that the name is likely to lead voters to associate the candidate with an already registered political party. On the other hand, it is also true that if someone were able to register a party—and, rightly, registration is an extremely simple business—as, say, Independent Conservative, it would be extremely difficult for the returning officer to refuse registration.

In those circumstances, reluctantly one must conclude that in this case the order is correct. As a representative of a party which has suffered more than any other from confusing labels—it is well known that we lost a seat in the European elections because of a confusing name—I must support the order. I do so with regret because there is a good deal in what the noble Earl has said. I wish that I felt able to support him, but it is important to ensure that the voters are not fooled, as experience has shown possible, by accepting candidates standing under misleading names. If one were free to stand as a member of an Independent Conservative Party there would be no necessity for having any connection with the Conservative Party or agreeing with any of its policies. The name could be adopted simply as a spoiling name. Therefore, I am afraid that if the noble Earl had been willing to put the matter to a vote I would not have been able to support him.

Lord Monson

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, perhaps I may put a point to him. He and his party are justly entitled to object to misleading names such as Literal Democrat. That designation was designed especially to deceive the electorate, which it did to the great disadvantage of his party. It is perfectly understandable that he should object to that name. However, can he really object to Independent Liberal Democrat? Can he really imagine that anyone would be fooled by such a designation?

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, I sometimes think that all of us in this party are independent Liberal Democrats! Yes, I can object because I do not think of someone standing under that label in an election but of someone registering a party under that name. It would not be correct to allow any party to be registered as "independent" coupled with the name of a political party. After all, in practice, "independent" tends to be used to describe an individual who for some reason or another decided to leave his party and wished to stand as an independent candidate. That may be legitimate. Indeed, I am aware that, for example, a Member of the other place calls himself an independent Labour Member of Parliament. However, it would not be appropriate for him to start a new party called the Independent Labour Party. That would be misleading.

5.4 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, this has been an interesting short debate. The House will be grateful to my noble friend Lord Onslow for tabling the Motion. I shall try to avoid making a bureaucratic point in response.

The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said that his party more than others had suffered from confusing labels. Perhaps I may respectfully suggest that if it wished to avoid that it should avoid changing its name so frequently. That might make life easier for it.

The debate has shown the difficulty of trying to lay down statutory rules for defining political parties. Indeed, the difficulty is so great that it demonstrates the folly of the Government, by the use of a particular type of proportional representation, in putting themselves and the country into a position where definitions are essential. But having gone that far, definitions are essential. My noble friends and others have concentrated on the use of the word "independent" when allied to the name of an existing political party. We all understand that candidates can stand as individuals—independent Conservative, Labour, or whatever—provided that they can persuade the returning officer that the designation is not misleading. Indeed, there have been independent candidates from all parties. However, a group will no longer be allowed to register itself as a political party using the word "independent"; in particular Independent Labour Party.

It is astonishing that a Labour Party should seek to abolish the words "Independent Labour Party", given its history. The noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, was right to say that the Labour Party did not exist when the Independent Labour Party was founded in 1893 by Keir Hardie, the year after he was first elected to Parliament as an independent. But it was one of the precursors to the Independent Labour Party of 1900 which subsequently evolved into the Labour Party. The Independent Labour Party continued to fight elections under that name right up to and including the 1945 election when the Labour Party not merely existed but was an extremely effective political force. Indeed, the ILP won four seats in that election.

The present Government are New Labour, which, we are constantly told, is different from Labour. Today, New Labour is rejecting its past in making illegal the words "Independent Labour Party". A government who do not value the lessons of their own history do not value the wider lessons of history. However, I understand why the Labour Party are putting the order before us. I have seen the pamphlet from Ken Coates, the Member of the European Parliament, and his colleagues. Of course, under the new system, we are all having trouble with unselected Members of the European Parliament.

It is a surprising order to come before us, particularly at a time when so much encouragement is being given from the highest level to a so-called realignment of British politics. It is through independent individuals and independent parties that realignments come about. There is no doubt that this order is intended to inhibit realignments in its specific way. So it is a sorry day for independent spirits, but perhaps a good day for control freaks.

5.10 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, speaking of which—

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, did the Minister say "of" or "as"?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I said "of". Having had the benefit of a state education I am always perfect in my grammatical construction.

The order is a little complicated and so perhaps it will help if I explain briefly how it will work. There are opportunities for people to stand—as the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said—under various individual designations if the returning officer accepts them under the criterion of the Act passed by your Lordships. For instance, there is no reason why someone who is presently a Member for Yeovil should not stand as the Liberal Democrat (Retired) Party or something of that sort. Indeed, there are prohibitions in the Act itself.

The noble Earl pointed out his horror at an order being tabled in these terms, particularly under the rubric of a prohibited words and expressions order. However, one sees in Section 3 that the registrar may grant an application unless the designation of the registered party is obscene or offensive. So, if it were to be a case of the Earl of Onslow Independent Party, it would certainly not be obscene, but I am sure the noble Earl would be the first to agree that it might well be extremely offensive—at least when its manifesto was produced because that is one of the characteristics of the noble Earl that we all love and relish so much.

It is really quite simple. Section 3 of the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998 sets out a number of tests to be applied by the registrar when deciding whether or not to grant an application for registration. It is well worth bearing in mind what the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, said in that regard. That section deals with registration of a political party. The first critical test is whether the name which the party wishes to register, would be likely to result in the party's being confused by voters with a party which is already registered"— Section 3(1)(a). A further test—Section 3(1)(f)—is whether the proposed name, includes any word or expression prohibited by order made by the Secretary of State". That is the order at which we are looking today.

I must acknowledge that even for "anoraks" in this field, the order is not an easy read. That is partly because Section 3(2) of the Act provides that this order "may" except a word or an expression from the prohibition in certain circumstances. The order therefore restricts the circumstances in which certain words or expressions may be used, but it does not completely prohibit them.

I turn briefly to look at the groups of words. Perhaps I should look at them distinctly, though the focus has been on one aspect only. Part I relates to royal words. We do not believe it to be right for parties to adopt names which would imply a connection with royalty where no such connection exists. But Article 2(2)(a) makes it possible to have an organisation registered, for instance, as the "King's Road Residents' Association" or "Friends of the Royal Marsden Hospital". There is therefore flexibility within the order to deal with that sort of situation.

Part II goes to a number of listed geographical words. That is because we know that in different parts of the United Kingdom candidates from different parties often want to describe themselves, for instance, as the "Scottish Labour" candidate, "Welsh Liberal Democrat" and so forth. That would not be possible if another party had already applied to register as the "Scottish Labour Party" and the Registrar had accepted that application. So the purpose of Part II, taken with Article 2(2)(b) is to prevent that application being accepted. However, it would allow, for instance, the "Welsh Farmers' Party" to register. The Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru have already been included on the register.

I turn to Part III, which has been the focus of this debate. It is simply there to prevent the words "independent", "official" or "unofficial" being registered on their own or in conjunction with the name of a party which is already registered. We know that individual non-party candidates choose to describe themselves as "Independent", "Independent Labour" and "Unofficial Conservative". Candidates from registered parties may, on the other hand, want to include the word "Official" in their descriptions. If a party had already registered itself as the "Independent Party", the "Independent Labour Party", the "Unofficial Conservative Party" or the "Official Liberal Democrat Party" and the registrar had accepted those applications, then there would be a limit on individuals standing in the cause of independence which is so dear to the heart of the noble Earl who criticised this matter.

Therefore Part III prevents those applications being accepted. Prevention of registration of those words has the beneficial consequence that they remain available for the individual candidates. What we have done in this apparatchik approach to politics is to retain the possibility for individual candidates who want to stand as "Independent", "Independent Labour" or "Unofficial Conservative" to have that designation on the ballot paper. That is a completely different concept from the registration of the party. We have therefore safeguarded the individual's opportunity to stand as an "Independent", "Independent Labour" or "Unofficial Conservative".

For completeness, Part IV ensures that certain generic words or phrases cannot be registered by a single party. One cannot register as the "Ratepayers' Party" but one could, for instance, register as the "East Ham Residents' Association".

Far from being a conspiracy of those in power to prevent the usurpation of that power through the ballot box, we have protected the individual. Following that explanation I am sure that all noble Lords will be abundantly and comprehensively satisfied.

Lord Davies of Oldham

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, perhaps he will take this opportunity to clear up one misconception in the debate; that is, that the Independent Labour Party never took the title of "Independent" to be independent from the Labour Party which did not exist, but sought to be independent from the Liberal Party and others and therefore set a very good precedent for Labour Party operations today.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, yes. It was all a development of the organisations which became the Labour Representation Committee started by H. M. Hindemann—if I remember O-level history correctly—at the end of the 19th century. My noble friend therefore is quite correct.

5.17 p.m.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I wish the noble Lord, Lord Carter, did not have so much charm. I have never heard a better apparatchik answer than that of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn. He would have been a senior mandarin at an ancient Chinese court; he would have done excellently as a eunuch at the court of Constantine.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, senior mandarin, yes; but "eunuch" no.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, I use it in its official capacity rather than in its literal capacity.

I can understand where the noble Lord is coming from, but it seems to me that the whole of that speech—as with the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart—is based on the premise that the British people are too stupid or are not intelligent enough to understand the difference. I happen to think that my fellow citizens form part of the most mature, sophisticated democracy in the western world. Ever since decent elections have been fought in 1832 they have almost invariably got exactly the right answer. They may have gone slightly over the top in 1997, but let us leave it at that.

Having said that, I hope—I suppose there is no hope of this—that perhaps the matter can be looked at again at some stage because a deeply illiberal bureaucratic streak goes through that order. However, as our traditions say that we do not yet vote against standing orders and slightly because of the charm of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.