Prior to 1998, the identity of political parties in the United Kingdom received little protection. As a result, the potential existed for voters to be easily confused by what they were seeing on their ballot papers.
Perhaps the best known case of this, and one I have highlighted before, related to a party called ‘The Literal Democrats’, which appeared on the ballot paper in the 1994 European Elections in Devon and East Plymouth. It did not end there, however, and the 1997 UK Parliamentary election saw a further spate of candidates using misleading names including New Labour, or Conservatory and Liberal Democrat Top Choice.
These cases resulted in the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998 which regulated party branding and names. This Act was then amalgamated and the regulations tightened in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA) to pass the responsibility for registering political parties to the Electoral Commission. The Commission is now responsible for applying the rules set out in PPERA with the aim of making sure that voters have clarity on the identity of who they are voting for.
A party wishing to field candidates in an election must register with us in order to have their party name, description and emblem appear on the ballot paper. They also have to explain how they plan to manage their finances and provide their constitution. They must also appoint people to some official roles – leader, treasurer and nominating officer. When registering with us, parties must apply for a party name and they can also apply for up to 12 party descriptions and up to three emblems. Each of these are assessed by the Commission in our registration process and, if approved, are published on PEF online.
To make the decision about what to register, the Commission recently updated our processes to involve a panel of senior staff from across the Commission, which, before a decision is made, considers whether each application meets the statutory tests identified in PPERA. My role is to provide an assessment and recommendation to this panel on each application, which they then consider.
But we want to make this process even more transparent and we have decided to see how we can engage the public, and others outside the Commission, more in the process of party registration by allowing them to comment on all applications before the Commission makes its decision.
As a trial, every application we receive will appear on our website, people will be able to submit comments and these comments will then accompany my written assessment to the panel.
This is a great opportunity for anybody to engage in the political party registration process. All applications will be posted on our website for 2 weeks and we will then update the webpage with our final decision, along with an explanation of why we have made it. We believe this is a great way to increase the transparency of the process. You can now view the first set of registration applications online.
We look forward to hearing directly from voters as part of this process, so get involved and let us know what you think!
Head of Research and Registration