A liberty with democracy, literally: Lesley Whittaker, Lib Dem agent in Devon, tells of her vain efforts to avert electoral injustice

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The Independent Online
AS A rule, people don't seem to care much about democracy in Britain. At local or European elections, for instance, six out of 10 do not even bother to go to the polls. But the electors of Devon have been forced to question the value of their votes, thanks to one man.

The tale starts in the village of Christow, on the fringes of Dartmoor. A man known locally as John Huggett decided to become a candidate at the European elections. In public meetings he called himself variously the 'controversial candidate' and the 'direct democracy candidate'. On the last day for filing nominations, Mr Huggett became a 'Literal Democrat'. He polled more than 10,000 votes, and the Liberal Democrats failed by 700 votes to gain the seat from the Conservatives.

They are fuming in Devon, and the anger is curiously ecumenical. The question on everybody's lips is, how was this allowed to happen? It was clear to anyone who thought about it that a 'Literal Democrat' was going to cause confusion. The problem was that not many people did think about it.

The Liberal Democrats did. I was the local agent, and I urged action as soon as I saw the description on the list of nominations. An application for judicial review of the returning officer's decision to allow Mr Huggett to call himself a Literal Democrat was made in the High Court. The judge decided that he could not order the review, and that an election petition after the election was the proper course of action.

The reports of the court case were less serious than they deserved to be, implying that the Lib Dems were simply trying to provide insurance against not doing as well as they hoped, rather than viewing the case as a matter of fundamental democratic rights.

As the campaign progressed, there were growing signs of serious confusion in the election campaigns. Press lists of candidates standing for election, from parish magazines to the Western Morning News, were frequently wrong, thanks to over-zealous editing which corrected the apparent error of 'Literal' Democrat to 'Liberal' Democrat and sometimes, even 'Lib Dem'. Readers were often baffled by reports which seemed incomprehensible, because they kept reading 'Liberal Democrat', whatever the words actually said.

When the results were announced on 12 June, the Conservative candidate had polled just 700 more than the Liberal Democrat - out of nearly a quarter of a million votes - and Mr Huggett had achieved the remarkable total of 10,203. Remarkable, because he had delivered no election address, attended very few meetings, and as a one-man band had not had the benefit of any election broadcast.

The Natural Law candidate collected 908 votes. He was probably not disappointed; fringe candidates in parliamentary elections usually collect 150-300 votes, and multiplied by the seven constituencies of the Devon Euro-seat, this would give 1,000-2,000 votes. It was obvious to everyone (including, I suspect, the Literal Democrat himself) that lined up on the table with the votes of the people who had intended to vote for Richard John Huggett were many thousands intended for the Liberal Democrat candidate, Adrian Sanders.

There was a recount, but what justice demanded was a rerun. It should have been a Tory rout, and the votes to do it were there, stacked under the wrong name. It was natural that local Liberal Democrats should feel aggrieved. What surprised us was the anger in the general population.

The phones started ringing in Liberal Democrat offices all over the constituency. The callers were of every political persuasion and none; from all over Devon and outside the county; people who had 'done a Huggett' and people who had nearly been confused but had spotted their mistake and corrected it. There were also voters who had voted for other candidates, but who felt it was outrageous that someone could make a mockery of the democratic process like this.

Some put forward the view that in British elections we vote for the candidate and not the party, so that people should have looked for the name 'Sanders', not for 'Liberal Democrat'. That this has not been true for years is evidenced by the fact that party names are now permitted on ballot papers. And if people were not expected to vote at least in some degree for a party, how can the enormous expenditure by party head offices be justified?

A few have described the Liberal Democrats as whingeing about a disappointing result. But I have taken many calls from Conservatives who express themselves as angrily as the rest at the implications for the democratic process of being able to stand as a candidate with a description designed to make it difficult to vote the way one intends. It has been mostly Tories who have said that the MEP should stand down in the interests of fair play and natural justice.

What would it achieve, even if the gesture were made? A by-election, certainly, but what if Mr Huggett wanted to stand again as a Literal Democrat? The returning officer would presumably repeat his judgement that there was nothing wrong in that, and decide the same for the Conversative and Labor candidates, the Neutral Law and UK Interdependence candidates, the Greed and British Notional Parties. How long can a ballot paper be before it looks like something scripted by Rory Bremner?

I am not an advocate of preventing individuals standing for election. All I ask is that their description elucidates, rather than confuses. The law needs to be clarified so that returning officers cannot claim they have no discretion to refuse such clever dodges. What about a candidate who chooses a description of obscenities; or whose party name is an open incitement to racial hatred? Are they allowed unchallenged?

Next week, the Liberal Democrats will file an election petition seeking to have the Devon Euro-election declared void. The matter needs to be dealt with, not just for this election in this constituency, but for good, because what may have started life as a clever play on words has ended up as an earthquake capable of rocking the parliamentary process.

The writer is agent for the Liberal Democrat Euro-election campaign in Devon & East Plymouth.

(Photograph omitted)

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