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Chris Blackhurst on the advent of US-style `single issue' campaigning
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The Independent Online
Voters in next year's general election will be deluged with leaflets on everything from disabled rights to bloodsports, guns and nuclear weapons, as US-style campaigning by single-issue pressure groups comes to Britain after a ground-breaking legal ruling.

Already, following the decision of the European Commission of Human Rights to allow the groups to overturn years of British election law and leaflet people with the views of candidates, plans are being drawn up to bring sleaze allegations through the letter-box.

Geoffrey Robertson QC, the leading civil-rights lawyer who obtained the commission judgment, said he felt sure it would be used by campaigners anxious to clean up Westminster to highlight the extra-parliamentary earnings of sitting MPs.

Those MPs who in the past have made no bones about the way they boost their salaries will find their quotes and business interests drawn to the attention of voters, while would-be MPs will be asked where they stand on Nolan and lobbying.

Previously, under British electoral law, such campaigning has been forbidden. Once the general election is called, groups such as CND, Greenpeace or the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (Spuc) have had to cease hostilities. As a result, US-type electioneering, where candidates are put through the mill on all manner of issues, has passed Britain by.

Politicians will be furious with the commission ruling, which was secured by Phyllis Bowman of Spuc. Ms Bowman, a veteran anti-abortion campaigner, has twice been convicted for her activities during British elections. The commission found that Section 75 of the Representation of the People Act 1983, banning her from distributing leaflets pinpointing candidates' views on abortion and embryo resesearch in an election period, was contrary to freedom of speech.

David Price, her solicitor, described the 28 to 1 verdict by the commission, as a "trailblazer for all single-issue groups ... a blow to all those politicians who seek to avoid moral debate".

In 1979 Ms Bowman was fined for leafleting people in the Ilford North by-election. In 1982, after the European elections, she was convicted again. In the last general election, in 1992, she distributed 25,000 leaflets in Halifax, setting out the three main candidates' views on abortion and detailing the voting record on the issue of Alice Mahon, the sitting MP.

Ms Bowman was charged under the Representation of the People Act, which makes it a criminal offence in the period before an election for an unauthorised person to spend more than pounds 5 in conveying information to electors about candidates. Ms Bowman was acquitted on a technicality - the summons had been served outside the one-year time limit - but decided to seek a ruling from the commission.

The Government argued that the law was designed to stop one candidate enjoying an unfair financial advantage over another. Rules restricting the expenditure of individual candidates would be made pointless, British officials maintained, if other people were allowed to campaign and spend money on their behalf.

Mr Robertson said Section 75 was "an anachronism. Now that elections are largely fought at national level it is absurd to stop pressure groups from making their concerns a matter of constituency interest".

Ms Bowman said she felt vindicated by the decision. Her society, she promised, would be leafleting homes in the general election with details on candidates' attitudes towards abortion. She said it would be like the US, "where you know where people are on certain issues".

William Peden of CND's parliamentary unit said that the anti-nuclear group was delighted at the ruling. "It will be a major improvement in the electoral process. It is brilliant news, we warmly welcome it. Elections will become like the US and should bring greater choice and greater democracy."

In the past, Mr Peden said, campaigners from groups such as his had literally gone on holiday when an election was called because there was so little they could do. That, he said, would not be happening next time round.

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