Leading Article: Caveat elector] The name means nothing

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The Independent Online
Liberal Democrats in Devon are understandably dismayed and embittered at having narrowly failed to secure a third seat for their party in the European elections. Beaten by a Conservative who polled 700 more votes, they feel defeat sprang from confusion rather than the popular will. Party workers claim that many of the 10,203 votes polled by Richard Huggett, maverick representative of the previously unheard of Literal Democrats, were cast in error. Yesterday, legal action began, aimed at having the result declared void.

It may well be true that voters were duped by the similarity between the two parties' names. But the case is unproven. Ballot papers could be re-examined to back up claims by individuals that they accidently miscast their votes for the Literal Democrats. Yet such an exercise would be fruitless. The Liberal Democrats have to accept that competitive politics often produces confusions which the parties themselves are obliged to clarify.

This is not the first case of its kind. At the 1992 general election, Labour attributed its loss of Slough to the presence of an unofficial Labour candidate who polled 699 votes. In the 19th century there were several instances of the electorate being offered a choice between two Liberals or two Conservatives.

Both Edward Heath and Roy Jenkins have fought namesakes. Margaret Thatcher was lucky that a returning officer used his discretion to exclude an impostor, but she would have had no grounds for legal action.

Nobody is empowered to exclude another person from using a party title or indeed a personal name during an election. Unless Britain follows other countries and legislates to register parties this will remain the case. The Plant report on electoral reform, commissioned by the Labour Party, has suggested that a register should be compiled.

Yet it seems unreasonable that any group should be allowed to claim sole ownership of a particular title. If the large parties want to retain their identities there are plenty of ways they can highlight any confusion their supporters might encounter. The Liberal Democrats failed to warn effectively against an obvious source of misunderstanding. Harsh though it may be, they, like Labour and the Tories in other instances, will have to accept the unfortunate consequences.