descriptions of candidates
139. Similar issues about the use of misleading descriptions
have arisen in recent years. Since the Ballot Act 1872, candidates
have been able to place a description against their name, thereby
allowing a means of distinguishing themselvesfor example
by their address or professionfrom other candidates of
a similar name. Under the Representation of the People Act 1948,
it was specified that "The description shall not refer to
the candidate's political activities", thereby preventing
the inclusion of party affiliations. 
However, this restriction was removed by the Representation of
the People Act 1969, and it has now become standard practice for
a candidate to be described by reference to the name of the party
the candidate is representing. What has happened recently is a
growing tendency for a candidate deliberately to choose a party
namewhether by a small change in the spelling or by use
of small variants in the wordswhich might confuse electors
into voting for them by mistake in place of one of the mainstream
parties. In at least one election it seems likely that the result
was affected by such a candidate. On occasion attempts had been
made in the courts to prevent this, but this route has proved
140. The Registration of Political Parties Bill,
introduced in May 1998 and intended to come into force in time
to apply to elections in 1999, sets up a mechanism intended to
address the problem. Under the Bill a register of party names
will be established (with priority in the first wave of registrations
being given to parties currently represented in the House of Commons).
The registrar will not register a name which in his opinion "would
be likely to result in the party's name being confused by voters
with a party which is already registered".
At an election, the returning officer will not accept a proposed
description of a candidate which "is likely to lead voters
to associate the candidate with a registered political party"
unless the registered party has endorsed the nomination.
The Bill also introduces a procedure for allowing parties to register
an emblem, which may appear on the ballot paper.
141. The provisions of the Bill are intended to address
not just the issue of misleading descriptions on ballot papers
but also to make possible the introduction of electoral systems
which involve stating a preference for a particular party rather
than simply a particular candidate. The issue here however is
whether the provisions will provide an effective solution to the
problems facing candidates from mainstream parties at elections.
142. Local authority electoral administrators were
not convinced that they would. Both the AEA and SOLACE had a number
of detailed queries relating to the procedures and timetables
applicable to the process, to which the Home Office have responded.
But they also saw difficulties on the key issue, that of how the
returning officer was to decide on what was a description which
was "likely to lead voters to associate" a candidate
with a registered party. SOLACE, while emphasising that returning
officers would not be averse to making difficult decisions thought
that "what is quite bizarre here is that politically restricted
officers ... are to make very significant political decisions
as to whether or not a candidate's description ... should be allowed"
and that while some such decisions might be relatively straightforward
others would not be and would place additional burdens on returning
officers at what was already a very busy period.
Both SOLACE and the AEA thought there was a danger of inconsistencies
between the decisions of different returning officers.
Particular difficulties might arise in respect of nominations
which involved limited variations on a registered party's name
arising from a genuine intention on the part of a candidate to
indicate that (s)he was standing on a platform representing a
particular strand of opinion within a party, or where a party
had split. These
witnesses drew attention to the fact that some of the people who
tended to stand under descriptions which might be misleading were
precisely the sort of people who would enjoy stretching the provisions
of the Bill to the limit and would be prepared to go to court
to challenge returning officers' rulings.
143. The main political parties shared some of these
concerns, though they welcomed the Bill in principle.
For the Liberal Democrats, Mr Rennard saw a danger of "cumbersome
and very difficult" court processes, and thought that the
legislation needed to be "tightened up" with a need
for stronger guidance to returning officers. For the Conservatives
Lord Parkinson also saw a need for improvements. For Labour, Mr
Gardner suggested that the Bill "does put an awful onus on
the returning officers .... We think there will need to be very
clear guidelines to ensure that we do not get continuous litigation
at every election". Possibilities raised have included the
suggestion that all the main parties should have the exclusive
right (except perhaps where preceded by the word "Independent")
to one particular word (such as 'Conservative', 'Labour' or 'Liberal'),
and that parties should be able to register a range of names (to
cope with local variations for example).
Concerns were also expressed about the fact that campaign literature
would not be subject to the same provisions.
144. The Minister, in his evidence, did not deny
that some parties might feel that the provisions did not provide
and that since the basic provision was that the decision rested
with a returning officer there was always the possibility that
a returning officer might take a view which did not accord with
the wishes of all the candidates.
Nevertheless, he thought that returning officers would henceforth
be working with clear legislation whereas, hitherto, the abuse
of descriptions had not been unlawful.
He also took the view that the provision for party emblems to
appear on the ballot paper would be a step forward in helping
to ensure that voters were not misled.
145. We welcome the provisions covering candidates'
descriptions in the Registration of Political Parties Bill so
far as they go. It remains to be seen how effective the provisions
of the Bill will be in practice. We believe however that returning
officers will need stronger guidance than is provided in the Bill
as to whether particular descriptions should be allowed. There
may also be a need to establish a mechanism to ensure consistency
between different returning officers' decisions. We conclude that
the Government, electoral administrators and political parties
should monitor developments closely, and that the Government should
be ready to introduce further proposals if necessary.