Political Parties, Electionsm and Referendums Bill

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Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): You will get one now.

Mr. Stunell: Perhaps I shall, but I would like to think that we had had so much publicity that people in Hazel Grove would be aware of the issue. Let us suppose that there were such a candidate. Of course, I would not like that and would want to resist. However, I hold elected office and have a responsibility for legislation. My job is not to make it more difficult for my competitors to contest in a democratic system

I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say. The broader point concerns our not suppressing competition unreasonably, and our introducing sensible and fair de minimis provisions, which allow minimal political activity to continue without the encumbrance of legislation.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): In supporting what has been said, both by my senior colleagues and by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, I should like to give a brief illustration, which goes back to south Wales in the 1960s and 1970s. In Swansea an active anarchist, Mr. Ian David Bone, used to describe himself on the ballot paper as the ``Community control, yo ho ho!'' candidate. That was an effective way of his getting a message across. I do not recall seeing him distribute any literature, probably because he was too anarchic to raise the funds to print any.

I favour his having had the latitude so to describe himself. It could have been said that belonging to a political party was against his political principles as an anarchist. I see no disadvantage in allowing independent candidates the extra self-description that the modest amendment would permit them. If the Government intend to resist the amendment, I urge them to be a little more liberal.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping): I, too, begin by welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Maxton. Those of us who have seen you in your running gear on the street and in the Lobby know that you will keep us on track and to our timetable. It will be achievable because, as was said earlier, we are all running in the same direction. It is unfortunate that the first set of amendments highlights a difference between us.

What unites us, as the hon. Members for North Dorset (Mr. Walter) and for Beaconsfield said, strongly, is a belief in the value of independents, who are an important part of our political system. We should be careful; the ceiling will come down if I do not give sufficient praise. I would like more genuine independents in the political system and it is important that the Bill keeps a role for them.

The purpose of clause 19 is to bring all organisations that put up candidates for election within the controls of parties' income and expenditure. Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 would undermine that objective. There are enormous gains in being a member of a political party. Everyone in the Committee is a member of a political party; it has disadvantages, which we frequently complain about, but disadvantages too. We should recognise advantages those advantages and be clear about them. Independents standing under a banner could, in effect, be members of political parties, but not acknowledge that fact. They would not, therefore, be playing on the same playing field as the rest of us: they would have the benefits of the Bill without being subject to its constraints.

The key feature of a political party is that it puts candidates up for election under a common banner. We know that a Labour candidate in London is part of the same party as a Labour candidate in Nottinghamshire. They may have a different approach, but if the amendments were accepted, who could say that an Independent Against Europe candidate standing in Beaconsfield was not in alliance with a similar candidate standing in North Dorset? Indeed, the Independent Against Europe party could field candidates across the country. If the amendments were accepted it could secure all the advantages of having that description on the ballot paper without being subject to the controls on parties' income and expenditure set out in parts III to V of the Bill.

The hon. Member for North Dorset drew our attention to that marvellous, attractive place in Wales where a by-election is taking place. It has an attractive name, which is difficult to pronounce: Ceredigion. The hon. Gentleman gave us two examples of people who are standing in that by-election: the ``Wales on Sunday, Match Funding Now'' candidate and the ``Independent Green Save the World Climate'' candidate. It will be an exciting by-election, and, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe)—I am always keen to keep in with the Whips—he must go and help in the campaign, because I am told that we are going to win. It is clear from the campaign fought by those two candidates that they could be members of political parties, independents who could stand throughout Wales.

Hon. Members are well aware of discussions about the problems of objective 1 funding in Wales. Although the ``Wales on Sunday, Match Funding Now'' candidate is an independent, there could be ``Wales on Sunday, Match Funding Now'' candidates in local, Assembly and parliamentary elections standing under that banner. If the amendment were accepted, they would stand as independents, but in reality they would be part of a political party. They would have the benefits of being members of a party without—the constraints that are on other parties. A person standing as an independent should play the same game as everyone else.

Our intentions are clear: we want to ensure that independents can stand. However, I strongly believe that the amendment would drive a coach and horses through the Bill because a political party is identified by the people who stand in elections. If candidates standing as independents were allowed up to five extra words in the description, they would have the benefit of being members of a political party without being subject to the Bill's constraints. It is an issue of concern to all political parties, and there is unease about the matter.

We all want a strong independent element and the Bill will not remove that. It is a safeguard to ensure that independents are not members of pseudo-parties. People can stand alone, but the sensible approach is that the Bill's constraints should apply to all parties—Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat—and to independents if they are, in effect, members of a political party.

Mr. Grieve: I have been following the Minister's argument carefully and I understand what he says in respect of the problem of groups of people standing on an identifiable platform getting together for a single election to field candidates across the country. I accept that, as drafted, the amendment would cause problems; but what happens to the poor old independent who is standing on his own on a single issue, yet cannot state what it is? He is the victim, is he not?

Mr. Tipping: In that situation, the independent will have to submit his nomination form. Every candidate has to be nominated; the independent will have to persuade people that what he stands for is acceptable. He will have to get his form into the office on the due date and that, in a sense, is the check. He will not have the advantage, as the hon. Gentleman recognises, of appearing on the ballot paper with a label attached to his name. I make no bones about the fact that that is a clear disadvantage. It will disadvantage genuine, individual independents who want to pursue a particular aim.

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should take a look at the current list of registered political parties. He would see a great range. I shall perhaps, in future, amuse Committee members when we are sitting late into the night—I hope that that will not happen—by regaling them with some of the aims and objectives of registered political parties. It is clear, for example, that the Morecambe bay independents have had a campaign strategy; they are a group. The Bill is intended to ensure that an independent cannot be a de facto member of an unannounced group.

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I accept that there is a down side to the measure. However, as the central purpose of the Bill is to identity political parties and attach to them prescriptions and advantages, we need a mechanism for ascertaining what a political party is.

Mr. Walter: I do not know the composition of the Minister's local authority, but my experience of local authorities is that sometimes independents join together in a group to gain control. That has happened in Dorset. West Dorset is still notionally an independent-controlled local authority. There is an independent group, which meets and selects a leader. In my experience, in the run-up to an election, those groups meet and discuss matters, along such lines as saying, ``Mrs. Smith is no longer standing for Little Poddlington ward; can we find another independent to stand there?'' Have those independents turned themselves into a political party according to the Minister's definition? Would they get round the Bill?

The Chairman: Order. Before the Minister replies to that intervention, which was a little long, I want to issue a general warning that I expect interventions to be brief.

Mr. Tipping: My experience of independents is that they are really Tories in disguise. It is possible to look across the east midlands and trace the history of some so-called independents, who turn out to have a long track record. I have tried to finger them on that—not very successfully, unfortunately.

The hon. Member for North Dorset describes a not uncommon occurrence—independent groups in council elections. It will be for them to decide whether they are a political party. There are big advantages to be had from registering, but, as has been discussed this morning, there is a down side too. If members of a council wanted to stand under a particular banner and were, de facto, a group, it would make sense to register. However, if they did not want to register, it would be a matter for them, but they would appear on the ballot paper with the single word ``independent''. Independent candidates have independent aspirations. How they campaign politically after the ballot, when they are on the council, is up to them.

There could be many people, in a range of councils—such as North Dorset, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire—standing as independents, but who, once elected, were really members of a united political party with common aims and aspirations, who would not suffer the constraints of the Bill. It will be for individuals to decide. They will have a stark choice—independence or a political party. The Bill is clear about that. We want a fair playing field for big and small parties. It should be clear that a political party comprises candidates standing under the same banner throughout the country. I welcome independents because they are healthy for politics and I hope that such people will stand in elections.

 
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