Friday, 25 April 2014

Political history: lost in confusion

Yesterday, the BBC reported that UKIP and An Independence From Europe have been having an argument with the Electoral Commission; UKIP claims that An Independence From Europe's use of the description 'UK Independence Now' on ballot papers could confuse potential UKIP voters and therefore should be disallowed by regional returning officers. They may have a point about that, it must be said.

The Registration of Political Parties Act 1998 and the Political Parties and Referendums Act 2000 are both designed to prohibit the use of descriptions on ballot papers that could potentially confuse voters intending to vote for more significant parties; also, a candidate cannot change their name by deed poll for the purpose of confusing voters (several attempts at this were disallowed by returning officers, and rightly so). Incidentally,this act required registration of political parties such that candidates could no longer use just any description on the ballot paper (some were used just for commercial purposes e.g. the Buy the Daily Sport party and the Alfred Chicken Party)

Here are some notable examples of attempts at voter confusion in elections:

Glasgow Hillhead by-election, 1982: Douglas Parkin changed his name to Roy Harold Jenkins when he heard the real Roy Jenkins (whose middle name was Harris) was standing, and used the description 'Social Democratic Party' (that of a smaller one founded by Donald Kean in 1979) on the ballot paper, an act of voter misleading so blatant that the returning officer should have disallowed the nomination straight away. He managed 282 votes; Roy Jenkins' margin of victory over Conservative Gerry Malone in this by-election was only 2,038.

Finchley, 1983 general election: A Mr Hanoman changed his name by deed poll to Margaret Thatcher; he was debarred from standing against the real Margaret Thatcher, though.

Vauxhall by-election, 1989: A Dominic Allen, sponsored by a religious cult, used the description 'the Greens' on the ballot paper, fooling 264 voters intending to vote Green into voting for him. This by election is incidentally the first time we Greens saved our deposit (we got 6.1% of the votes in that by election).

Slough, 1992 general election: In a key marginal, a Declan Halford (who used to belong to the real Labour Party) used the description 'the Labour candidate' (as opposed to 'the Labour Party candidate) on the ballot paper, polling 699 votes; the Conservative margin of victory in Slough that year was only 514 votes.

Newbury by-election, 1993, and Christchurch by-election, 1993: In anger at the above trick, another Slough Labour party member, Andrew Bannon, stood as 'the Conservative candidate' (as opposed to 'the Conservative Party candidate') in both by-elections, polling 561 votes in the former, putting him ahead of 14 of the Newbury by-election candidates, and 357 votes in the latter, placing him ahead of 8 of the Christchurch by-election candidates. He hoped by bringing attention to this issue he would persuade Parliament to prevent such situations happening in future elections or by-elections.

Devon and East Plymouth, 1994 European elections, UK: This is the most cited example of confusing party descriptions in British history. Psychologist and ex-headmaster Richard Huggett used the name 'Literal Democrat' on the ballot paper and he polled as many as 10,203 votes (4.3% of the total!); the Liberal Democrats' candidate Adrian Sanders (later MP for Torbay) finished only 700 votes behind the Conservative candidate. He lodged a petition citing that Mr. Huggett was deliberately trying to confuse voters but the High Court dismissed it.

Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election, 1995: A Peter Douglas used the description 'Conversative candidate' in the by-election, inspired by the famous example above. He polled only 193 votes however; meanwhile, the real Conservative candidate lost the seat by 6,300 votes and finished third.

Kinross and West Perthshire by-election, 1995: A Michael Halford used the description 'Scottish Conservatory and Unionist Party' (as opposed to Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party) in this by-election, but polled only 89 votes and finished second from bottom, just ahead of the hopeless Natural Law Party.

1997 general election, several constituencies: Mr. L. Foley tried to change his name to Sir Nicholas Lyell (the Attorney General at the time) in the seat of North East Bedfordshire, but the real Sir Nicholas got a court injunction to stop this. Mr. Foley polled 1,843 votes nevertheless as an Independent Conservative. Similarly, David Neal was forced to use his real name in Clwyd West instead of 'Rod Richard' (the MP for that seat was Rod Richards) but the returning officer still allowed him to use the description of 'Conservatory'. Also, several people in London used the description 'New Labour' to confuse Labour voters.

Winchester, 1997 general election and subsequent by-election of the same year: Richard Huggett once again was up to his old tricks here. He tried to run as Gerald MacClone (the sitting MP was Gerald Malone) but was barred from doing this; he used the description 'Liberal Democrat Top Choice for Parliament' and polled 640 votes. Mark Oaten's margin of victory over Mr. Malone was only 2 votes, and the number of ballot papers that were rejected for want of an official mark that could have affected the result meant the election was declared void. Mr. Huggett stood again under 'Literal Democrat Mark Here to Win' but polled just 59 votes as his cover had been blown this time. 

Finally, in 1998, Parliament put a stop to these practices of deliberate voter confusion once and for all, undoubtedly with the help of the aforementioned Messrs. Sanders and Oaten.

Political history in Britain is particularly fascinating sometimes, is it not?

Alan.





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