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Hansard 16 Dec: Column 893 ...
Hansard 16 Dec: Column 893

Martin Bell, the Independent MP for Tatton, speaking in the annual Christmas adjournment debate - traditionally used by MPs to raise constituency issues - alerted independently-minded politicians, local as well as national, that they risked being prevented from standing for election.

He said that with the Registration of Political Parties Act just on the statute book, he had received a letter from the registrar asking whether he wished to register himself as a political party. Alongside that was a Home Office press release which said it was not possible to register as an independent.

'That is strange, because I stood in the election as an independent and I sit in the House as an independent. What else should I be? The Tatton Park Party, the Flat Earth Party or the Knutsford Heath Party? It does not make sense'.

He said his complaint was not on his own behalf - [Mr Bell has always said he would sit through only one parliament] - but for many independent-minded members of established parties. One of the provisions of the Act was that certain qualifying words could not be attached to the name of a party - one of those being 'independent'. From now on, it will be against the law to stand as independent Labour, independent Conservative or independent Liberal Democrat.

Mr Bell explained:'That clause arose from the Literal Democrat fiasco, when an individual stood as a Literal democrat deliberately to confuse voters and so far succeeded in doing so as to draw enough votes from the Liberal Democrats to cost them a seat in the European parliament'.

But the provision had been extended in such a way as to prohibit the right of an individual who has fallen out with his party to stand as an independent member of that party. He might have voted against the party whip too often, failed to answer the pager, been seen at Westminster during a 'constituency week' or upset the constituency party. For any one of those reasons or a combination, the member might be deselected and might, rightly, wish to fight for his seat under the label of indepndent Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat.

And he warned:'The Act also applies to local government. There is an independent Labour group on Hull City Council, with three elected members and two who have crossed the floor. They will no longer be able to stand as independent Labour.

'I have nothing against parties. They are necessary for government and may even be necessary for opposition, but some space must be given to free spirits, independent-minded people and people outside the system, such as citizen politicians. They do not threaten the system, but reinforce it by adding legitimacy to the memnbers of established parties who get elected'.

Mr Bell linked this with the closed party list system of proportional representation.

' threat to our democracy comes from the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998, and another comes from a measure that is being railroaded through now - the European Parliamentary Elections Bill - which seems to have come straight out of the rule book of the old Albanian Communist party. In both cases, the interests of parties are being put ahead of the rights of individuals. On all those issues, as on many others, we in this House stand on the ramparts of democracy and we have a duty to defend them'.

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