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The power lies in laying claim to a name

THOUGH I do not really feel any need to justify myself to Mr Alastair Campbell, I thought nevertheless that this week I would devote the column to a fairly obscure measure which the Government, unopposed by the Conservatives, passed last year: the Registration of Political Parties Act. I wanted to satisfy my own curiosity as well.

It may be, of course, that Mr Campbell and others who lament, often with reason, the meretricious nature of much political reporting today do not consider the registration of parties as having anything to do with the "real" issues. There are, after all, those who say that education and housing are real issues but that local government finance is not one of them. What they mean honestly is that the subject is difficult, tedious and understood by few, a select group unfortunately not including themselves.

This is not at all surprising. There have, I think, been 17 (there may have been more) different systems of local authority finance since 1945. Yet how can housing and education be properly understood without some knowledge of what used to be called the Rate Support Grant? Or how can anything in politics be understood at all without some knowledge of sterling and its relationship to other currencies? Likewise the registration of parties will affect elections and the rules under which they are conducted. These will in turn determine the nature of various administrations under which we must conduct our lives, in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe.

The Bill had its second reading in the Commons (second reading being the stage at which a Bill's principles are meant to be expounded) on 4 June 1998. It was introduced by the Home Secretary, Mr Jack Straw, in a speech of great lucidity and some humour. The measure, he said, would help prevent the use of misleading candidates' descriptions on ballot papers, thus "helping to protect the identity" of parties and "the integrity of the political process".

It introduced no criminal sanctions against non-registration: it did not make the registration of political parties compulsory. But it created "strong incentives" for them to register. Any "serious party" which intended to put forward candidates at an election would be "well advised" to register in order to be allowed to do four things otherwise not permitted under the Act.

First, a party would be able to protect its name from "misuse" by others. Second, it would be able to put forward lists of candidates for the additional- member systems in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and for the regional-list system in the European Parliament. Third, a party's emblem could be printed beside a candidate's name on the ballot paper. And, fourth, the Act would ensure that only those parties which were registered would be eligible, though not entitled, to be offered a party political broadcast. Registration would be (though Mr Straw did not use the hallowed philosophical phrase) a necessary but not a sufficient condition. Unregistered parties would not be allowed a PPB.

Let us now leave Mr Straw for a moment and turn to the Act itself to see what it says. The register is to be kept by the registrar of companies. The fee, though this is not in the Act, is pounds 100. The registrar must grant the application, unless the name "would be likely to result in the party's being confused by voters with a party which is already registered". Nor must the name comprise more than six words or be "obscene or offensive" or include words "the publication of which would be likely to amount to the commission of an offence". The name must be in Roman script and cannot include "any word or expression prohibited" by an order made by the Home Secretary.

Any disputed matter may be referred - there is no compulsion - by the registrar to a committee of MPs appointed by the Speaker. But there does not seem to be any compulsion on the registrar to accept the committee's advice. Mr Straw made clear in the House last June that all the processes of the Act would be subject to judicial review.

An application must specify either a name to be the party's registered name or a name both in Welsh and in English to be the registered name. If a name is in a language other than English or Welsh the application must include an English translation.

This is a rather odd piece of drafting. English and Welsh are equivalent under this Act. They may be so anyway under an Act of 1967. Why then introduce the name both in Welsh and in English at all? Clearly "Sinn Fein" must be translated as "We Ourselves" or whatever. Under one interpretation, "Plaid Cymru" would also have to be accompanied by "The Party of Wales". In the House Mr Straw said there would be no difficulties at all - that Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein could both stand alone, unaccompanied and untranslated. I am not sure this is what the Act says.

An application must also give the name and home address of the person to be registered as the party leader or, where there is no leader, the person who is leader "for some purpose specified in the application", whatever that may mean. Would it, for instance, be acceptable to say that a person was to be the equivalent of a Box Number?

The Act changes the rules for parliamentary elections as set out in the Representation of the People Act 1983. A nomination paper may not include a description of a candidate which is likely to lead voters to associate that candidate with a registered political party unless the description is authorised by a certificate satisfying two conditions. First, it must be issued by the "registered nominating officer" of the party, who is a different legal creature from the leader, though there does not seem to be any legal reason why both roles should not be combined in the same person. And, second, the certificate must be received by the returning officer during the period for delivery of nomination papers.

Inasmuch as anyone has shown the slightest interest in all this, it has been commended to the public as a means of tidying up difficulties over "Literal Democrat", "The Conservation Party" and so forth. And, to be fair to him, Mr Straw did point out clearly that a party label of some kind would be necessary for those who wished to contest the European and other elections which will shortly be thrust upon us.

Nor does the legislation prohibit independent candidates from standing in parliamentary elections. Indeed, in the specimen ballot paper in the Act one candidate is specifically so dubbed. Another is called "The Labour Party Candidate". In the House last year Mr Straw said he thought "New Labour" would be prohibited by the legislation. That is what Mr Tony Blair calls himself. But the difficulty lies elsewhere: either with a candidate or with a new party which wants to be called Old, Traditional, Original or Independent Labour. Similarly, it is possible that the Conservative Party will split over Europe or even divide into three. Who is to say which of them takes the name "Conservative"? It can hardly be left to the registrar.

What the Act really does, I am afraid, is consolidate the power of the big political parties. Whether it was intended to have that result I do not know. My conclusion may or may not please Mr Campbell. But at least it shows that some of us try to be serious sometimes.