Previous SectionIndexHome Page

6.47 pm

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test): The Bill is important because it recognises three long-standing constitutional fictions, places them under the spotlight, defines them and takes action on them. I welcome the all-party support that has been displayed during

10 Jan 2000 : Column 71

the debate, but have to point out that, in the past, the Conservative party has prospered from the maintenance of those fictions, despite widespread evidence of public disquiet about less-than-straightforward party funding arrangements.

The first of those constitutional fictions is that elections are contested by the individuals listed on the ballot paper who, under relatively recent legislation, may--if they want to--provide a party label to guide voters. In reality, elections are, to an overwhelming extent, conducted by parties. We Members of Parliament might choose to believe that our fabulous personalities and stirring deeds are the factors that sway voters. There is no doubt that, to a certain extent, each election hinges on the merits or otherwise of the candidates, but not to the extent that is sometimes pretended. In truth, most people vote primarily for a party and for the candidate on the ballot paper who has secured the support of that party.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Does not the logic of the hon. Gentleman's argument suggest that the hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Woodward) should now submit himself to a by-election, given that it was the Conservative party, not him personally, for which his constituents voted at the last general election?

Dr. Whitehead: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I was referring to the position in general elections. Unfortunately, it is not custom and practice in the House for everyone who crosses the Floor to submit to a by-election. Some hon. Members who are present in the debate were previously members of other parties.

In general elections, the national campaign plays a substantial role in voters' behaviour at the ballot box. It is a constitutional fiction that local party members have nothing to do with the public's view of the national party's campaign. It is right to take steps to regulate parties' conduct in elections. The public have a right to know that their representative is who he or she claims to be, and that the party supports its local representative's campaign ethically and openly. Who funds the party and the means by which it is funded is therefore important. The limit on national spending restores reality to a constitutional fiction.

Those who have stood for election, especially in the sort of marginal seats that the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) described as the key battlegrounds of modern elections, will recognise the sense of wonder and puzzlement that candidates experience as they struggle to ensure that they remain within the local spending limits, only to find that a national party has moved in and bought all the poster sites. That happened to me, and, regrettably, the party was not mine. When that happens, the local campaign appears ludicrous to many members of the public. Strict limits are demanded locally, while a parallel campaign takes place in those key battlegrounds, funded from who knows where. Candidates can also find that a supposed non-party organisation--a third party--which is well funded from opaque outside sources is campaigning hard against them. That biases election expenditure against the logical intention of the local expenditure limit.

That leads to a second constitutional fiction. It makes no sense to keep to local expenditure limits while arguing for a free-for-all national limit, especially as that results

10 Jan 2000 : Column 72

in the outcomes that I have described. American research shows that money thrown at a campaign seems to make a difference. In United States proposition and referendum campaigns, money seems to talk.

In a seminal book on the subject, Thomas Cronin analysed a series of American referendums and propositions and the difference in expenditure between two sides, which varied between three to one and 200 to one. He also analysed specific referendum and proposition campaigns as they progressed. He considered public opinion that favoured an initiative when it was first presented, examined the funding for the campaigns and looked at the result. Two examples, plucked at random, are instructive.

In Montana, the proposition was:

The proponents spent $12,000 and the opponents spent $500,000. Initially, 70 per cent. agreed with the proposition; only 29 per cent. voted for it.

In California, the proposition was:

The proponents spent $400,000, while the opponents--the oil companies--spent $5,770,000. Three months before the vote, 66 per cent. of the population agreed with the proposition, but the eventual vote in favour was 44 per cent. On an American analysis, throwing money at a referendum campaign can change the outcome. The public are properly concerned about that.

The third constitutional fiction is that the United Kingdom eschews referendums. To bend the famous saying, the British constitution does not take account of referendums except when it does. That has led to ad hoc arrangements for the referendums that have taken place. It is high time that a comprehensive system of regulation for referendums was established, especially as they are set to become a far more regular feature of the United Kingdom political scene in future.

I strongly support giving the Bill a Second Reading tonight. However, in the spirit of the dialogue that is taking place in the Chamber, I hope that several points will be examined closely in Committee. First, I hope that third-party election campaigning will be considered. The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) mentioned that earlier. He said that he was head of a political action organisation and that he would have split his organisation into four. I devised names for the four sections: Friends of the Bomb, Amis de la Bombe, Cold War Warriors and Catch a Spy Inc. All those organisations could contribute to a campaign. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that that had happened in the United States and that fractured campaigning money gets around regulations on third-party funding. I do not have any immediate suggestions on how to deal with that, but I hope that the Committee will examine the matter in some detail.

The second point is about referendums. The Bill is sensible: the Electoral Commission will designate relevant campaigning organisations when there are two possible answers and set boundaries on campaign funding during referendums. However, the Bill does not provide for responsibility for regulating referendums that do not cover at least the area of a regional development agency.

10 Jan 2000 : Column 73

That excludes many referendums on the organisation and structure of local government, some of which will cover an area as large as a county or a city of 1 million or more people. They may attract considerable funding. Unlike referendums that are within the scope of the Electoral Commission, they may be triggered by what is effectively a proposition campaign--a campaign to gather sufficient signatures to trigger the referendum. Therefore, they have an entirely different dimension.

Mr. MacShane: I have listened to my hon. Friend's argument with great interest. Is he not saying that the Bill is unlikely to be the last word? We are opening a Pandora's box. As democracy, devolution and other democratic consultations take off under new Labour's programme, the House and society will have to return to the issues that the Bill covers.

Dr. Whitehead: My hon. Friend is right. It may be a good idea at this stage to ascertain whether account can be taken in Committee of the fact that referendums in Britain are here to stay at different levels of government. They need proper regulation to secure public confidence in their outcomes.

I mentioned setting up referendums that are triggered locally. We have made the assumption that national referendums are generally triggered by Government and agreed by Parliament. It is interesting that the Local Government Bill, which is currently before another place, provides that a referendum can be triggered locally by a write-in vote of 5 per cent. of the population requiring a local authority to set up a referendum on whether they should have an elected mayor. Under those circumstances, the campaign to trigger the referendum has life, funding and other attendant attributes. In the United States, signature harvesting for propositions, especially when they are backed by commercial interests, has a substantial financial life of its own. It may be undertaken by companies that specialise in gathering signatures. They may be paid per every 1,000 signatures and make a substantial sum of money. We may ask ourselves whether we would like that practice in the United Kingdom.

I note that the Local Government Bill, which was published before Christmas and is currently proceeding in the other place, provides only in clause 30 for the Secretary of State to

The categories listed in clause 36, however, which may be the subject of the Secretary of State's regulation, significantly do not include the regulation of either the finance of a referendum or the process of gathering signatures to trigger one.

Clause 118 prohibits the publishing of promotional material on referendums by local authorities. That provision may be regarded as applicable only to regional or national referendums. I hope that that is the case; otherwise we shall be left in the difficult position where anybody but a local authority can publicise a local or sub-regional referendum. We have no clarification of the extent to which a local authority can or cannot pursue a position that it has reached in the light of a referendum triggered in its area. We are told that all that will be the subject of separate regulation, but it might be prudent to add to the remit of the Electoral Commission by extending its overall responsibilities on the fair conduct of

10 Jan 2000 : Column 74

referendums to provide some overall input to the conduct of sub-regional and local referendums in order that the regulations arising from the Local Government Bill are not seen to be at odds with those arising from this Bill.

There is a further possible anomaly that I hope might be looked at in Committee. Clause 95 specifies that the Bill will apply

That schedule defines the areas that are, broadly speaking, coterminous with the pre-existing boundaries of the Government offices for the regions, which make up the regional development agency areas. That has been the basis on which RDAs have been set up, but the Government have committed themselves, in the fullness of time, to the development of elected regional assemblies, which I applaud, provided that they represent the will of the people in the region. That reflects the comment of my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane). The Green Paper on RDAs envisaged that some form of legitimisation by referendum or similar means would be required to achieve that so a further category of referendum could arise, which is, one assumes, the reason for the provision that a referendum in a region shall be covered by the provisions of the Bill.

It is by no means certain, however, that a referendum to establish a regional assembly would be conducted in an area coterminous with the present RDA boundaries. Indeed, it has been suggested that the decision to go for a referendum might be within the competence of the regional chambers established to run alongside RDAs. As regional boundaries are presently a given and arise from Government offices for the regions' boundaries, does it follow that every region would want a referendum to take place within the boundary that it was given when it was set up? Is it likely that exactly the current boundaries in the south-east or the south-west, for example, would form the basis for a successful referendum on a regional assembly? As matters stand, and from my reading of the Bill, it appears that that is the case. If not, a resulting referendum would not be regulated by anybody.

Those are elements of the Bill which I believe that it is important to get right, but overall they are small matters in relation to the change that will be achieved by the passage of the Bill itself, which will strike a great blow for public confidence in the integrity of the electoral system that they rely on for the validation of public decisions. The electors will know that the political parties that represent them and seek their votes are properly constituted and transparently funded and that the conduct of elections and referendums by those parties is fair and unswayed by people throwing money at them, either directly or indirectly. That change is incalculably important to the maintenance of the integrity of the political process of the United Kingdom and the probity and even-handedness of its electoral procedures.

Next Section

IndexHome Page