Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require individuals standing for elected office in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to declare any political party of which they are a member when registering to stand; and for connected purposes.
The purpose of the Bill is simple. If enacted, it would mean that citizens who stand for elected office in the United Kingdom, whether in the European Parliament, the House of Commons, the Welsh Assembly, the Scottish Parliament or a county, district, town or community council, would have to declare any registered political party membership that they hold at the time that they submit their nomination papers.
The Bill would apply to all of us. Those like myself and the many hon. Members in the Chamber today who are open about their political party membership will have no problem with the Bill. It will confirm to electors what they already know about us as candidates. Those who are genuinely independent of party membership, such as yourself, Mr Speaker, will equally have no problem with the Bill, because they too will be declaring what the public already know. The Bill is aimed at greater transparency for those who stand under the banner of an independent, but who are allied to a political party to the extent that they are a member of it.
The genesis of the Bill goes back some time. When I was first elected to my local council—amazingly, it was 30 years ago in May—I noticed that a genial independent councillor who was elected in a very Tory ward always voted and spoke with Labour. When I asked him about it, he confessed that he was a member of the Labour party, but that he stood as an independent as he would
“never have been elected as Labour”.
I did not think that that was fair then and I do not think that it is fair now. Democracy is surely about people knowing what they are voting for, as far as is practicable.
My interest in this issue was rekindled last year during the police and crime commissioner elections, particularly in my area of north Wales. A number of candidates stood for the post, including Labour, Conservative, UK Independence party and independent candidates. One of the independent candidates for the post was Winston Roddick QC. He was the successful candidate and is now operating as the police commissioner for north Wales. May I say at this point that I wish him well in that post and hope that he does a good job? My concerns are solely about transparency in the election.
I knew of Mr Roddick before he became an independent candidate. He was a well respected senior civil servant in the Welsh Assembly and had twice been a Liberal parliamentary candidate. He was and still is a member of the Liberal Democrats, and yet he put himself forward under the banner of an independent before 500,000 voters in north Wales. That point was raised during the election, but it did not receive a high profile—nor, dare I say it, did the election itself. He received 25,175 votes on the first ballot on a turnout of less than 15% and 36,688 votes on the second and final ballot, and was elected.
Interestingly, by comparison, the Liberal Democrats have never received more than 18,000 votes for the north Wales region in the four Assembly elections, which have had much bigger turnouts. Indeed, in 2011, they got just 11,000 votes on a 40% turnout, compared with Mr Roddick’s 25,000 votes when he stood as an independent. I contend, therefore, that not having a party label helped his cause. The feedback afterwards included a tweet from a constituent of mine, which said:
“I voted for Winston Roddick thinking he was independent and it now turns out he’s a liberal.”
In that case, the winner has said that he will not take the whip. However, my contention is that it is very strange and a little unnerving that a fully paid-up party member can stand as an independent without resigning their membership and not be open about the values that they hold. Mr Roddick says that he was open about his candidature. In that case, I hope that he will support the aims of the Bill.
What happened in north Wales is not unique. In the police and crime commissioner election in Devon and Cornwall, a former chairman of the Devon and Cornwall police authority and head of the Liberal Democrat group on the Association of Police Authorities stood as an independent. Again, there might be good reasons for that—dare I say it, but the public might not want to vote for a Liberal Democrat—but the point is that the individual was a member of the Liberal Democrats. Indeed, I checked the website today, and he is still the leader of the Liberal Democrats on his local council, having not stood as an independent in that election.
The situation in the City of London corporation is the same, with most current councillors sitting as independents, despite being members of political parties. Only last week, an election was held for it, and although some candidates stood with party labels, many stood as independents, even though they had party cards in their back pockets. One independent winner is an officeholder of the City of London Conservative association.
It could be worse. I do not think any of us would be comfortable with the idea of members of parties such as the British National party and others being able to stand as independents and have people vote for them as independents in good faith. In my own constituency in 2004, an individual was elected as an independent, but two years later, when the BNP’s membership was leaked, it turned out that he was a member. I am sure that the voters who put faith in him then might not have done so had they known his party allegiance. Across the country there will very shortly be elections where people will be standing as party members, but also as independents, and it is important that we have clarity and transparency on those issues.
For those who worry about the potential infringement of civil liberties, let me be clear about what the Bill does not do. It does not prevent anyone from standing for election or from calling themselves an independent. It does not even prevent people from standing as independent despite being party members. It will, however, inject transparency into the system, so that no one can ever stand again as an independent, be in a party and not declare it. There is nothing wrong with being an independent councillor or MP. It is not my choice, but there is nothing wrong with it. It is deeply worrying, however, that people can stand as independent, despite having a party membership card in their back pocket. It presents a real problem for our democracy, because the values that influence parties might well influence the electorate, and if those values are hidden, the electorate might vote blind on those issues.
I have raised this issue with the Government and had hoped for a positive response. Sadly, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith),has confirmed:
“The Government has no plans to require those wishing to stand as independent candidates to disclose any political party membership they might hold at the time of nomination. It is for prospective candidates to decide whether they wish to stand independently or on behalf of a registered political party.”—[Official Report, 21 November 2012; Vol. 553, c. 498W.]
That is a shame, but I hope that the Bill will be the start of a process that will shed light on this issue and allow the Government to come to a conclusion whereby independents will have to declare party membership if they hold it.
My proposal would add transparency to our democracy and help ensure the public have the information they need to make an informed choice. It will not add undue stress or expense to the election procedure and could be done simply, without the need for a particularly big shake-up of electoral procedures. This small bit of information could go someway to ensuring that voters get what they think they are voting for, rather than for what they are actually voting for without realising it. My proposal would add one small, but important, dimension to the system. It would require that if someone stands as an independent, or under any label, without declaring a party membership, action would need to be taken. I propose that the election be declared void, the member disqualified and a by-election called. I ask for no further penalty than that. I simply ask that those individuals have the opportunity to face the electorate under their true colours.
I believe that people should be public and proud about being members of the Labour party, and should not hide behind the banner of independence, if they hold a party membership. The Bill will provide some transparency. I am sure, as I have said, that there are examples across all parties, so I hope that this is not a party political point. I want transparency for all members. We should be proud of our democracy and how our elections operate. The suppression of such information is not good for our democratic system. I hope and believe that the House will share that view. I am pleased to have secured cross-party support from Liberal Democrat, Conservative and Labour Members, and I hope that nobody has anything to fear by it. I commend the motion to the House.
I had not intended to participate in this debate, but having heard the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson), I am driven to speak against the motion. I seek not to divide the House, but to put down a marker that the Bill would not have unanimous support. It would be a regulatory Bill cutting across the tradition of independence, particularly in parish and town councils, where people should not have to declare their party allegiance. It is perfectly legitimate that somebody stands for election to a parish or town council on the basis that they are independent, even if they are a member of a political party.
The Bill implies that people who belong to political parties belong only to one political party. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s argument, which he put forward strongly, about the Liberal Democrats being duplicitous—I have no quarrel with him on that—but let us think of students. You, Mr Speaker, were once a student. Many of them join three or more political parties at the freshers fare in order to see which has the most attractive membership. That is a perfectly legitimate objective for many people who join political parties. It would be very confusing to the electorate if one of those students was to declare that they were a member of four political parties. Where would that leave the electorate?
Having heard what the right hon. Gentleman said and having not intended to participate in the debate, all I can say is that I wish him well with the Bill, but I shall be opposing it in due course.
Question put and agreed to.
That Mr David Hanson, Ian Lucas, John Cryer, Rosie Cooper, Wayne David, Angela Smith, Sir Bob Russell, Mr Philip Hollobone, Craig Whittaker, Mr Virendra Sharma, Andrew Gwynne and Karl Turner present the Bill.
Mr David Hanson accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 3 May, and to be printed (Bill 155).