Revolutionary Communist Party Britain (Marxist-Leninist)

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Election Material

We are publishing material about the parliamentary system and standing in the election prepared for the 6th National Consultative Conference of RCPB(ML) (See Report). We hope this material may be useful for independent candidates and others.

British Parliamentary Democracy

Election Timetable

Nomination and the Deposit

Campaign Expenditure

British Parliamentary Democracy

The function of British parliamentary elections: to determine who are the 651 persons to be MPs.

However, the party system demands that this function is subordinate to the function of determining which Party will form the government, and depends also on the "popularity" of the leader of the party, who will occupy No 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister. The election therefore simultaneously controls the personnel in parliament and the personnel who form the government. The Cabinet system, and the increasing power of the Prime Minister within that, coupled with the absolutism of the Royal Prerogative ensures that, contrary to democratic principle, in the relation between the executive and the legislature (determined by one and the same general election) the executive dominates the legislature, and is not subordinate to it. The government is appointed from the ranks of those who are members of parliament, but the party system ensures that those who aspire to be in the government, i.e. the executive, must be members of the majority political party and campaign for its victory in the election. Thus, as well as not being selected by the electorate, the candidates do not primarily canvass for votes on their own merits as representing the electorate’s interests, but on the basis of the party to which they belong as being the party which seeks a mandate for the political programme or manifesto which it has decided on, and is putting before the people and which it is supposed to implement as the government.

The authority vested by a general election in the House of Commons, and hence through its mechanisms in the government, Cabinet and Prime Minister of the executive, cannot be impugned or restricted in any way under the terms of any body of fundamental or basic law. This is because there is no such codified constitution that the authority may be modified by. In other words, an Act of Parliament is the supreme source of law.

That the general election confers such absolute authority is completely at odds with the desire that the people be sovereign. Thus the British system of representative democracy, from its apex the monarch governing by divine right at the base of the system, ensures that it is the mandate of the governing party (with the political and economic power which stands behind it) which is imposed on the people. In other words, it deprives the electorate of any power to make any genuine choice. This is so in the sense of being able to consider all the options, set the agenda, and decide which candidates from among the people should represent their interests, legislate for them, giving legal guarantees to their rights, and hold the executive, which governs to implement that legislation representing the legislative will, to account, and there is no opportunity for the popular will to be reflected in parliament.

Instead it is put forward that because the electoral process exists, ipso facto the system must be democratic. The direction that this electoral system is going is that under this process it is increasingly asserted that the governing party is the embodiment of the values which the electorate should adopt. In other words, far from it being the case that the legislature should be subordinate to the popular will, it is turned around to say that the nation should exhibit the political will to implement what the government decrees as being in its interests.

The content of who controls political power and wields it in whose interests is covered over, and there is no sense in which political power is shared between the people and their representatives.

Even in theory, the British system of parliamentary democracy is put forward more as one of deciding on issues of policy rather than of electing people’s representatives. Thus when Edward Heath went to the country over the miners’ strike in February 1974 to determine "who rules Britain" he lost. But the system then did not provide that it was the miners that won.

The political parties put before the electorate their manifestos containing the parties’ whole range of public policies that they are to aim to implement if elected to govern. Fundamentally, there has been no opportunity for the electorate to determine the content of those manifestos. Granted that, there is at the same time no opportunity for the voter to distinguish between those policies they approve of and those they do not. The political party that wins the election claims an electoral mandate for its entire policy programme. However, the reality is that the winning party will not have received the support of an electoral majority on any individual item of policy, not to mention that it rarely receives the support for a mandate from the majority of the electorate, because of the low numbers who vote, and not to mention that the manifesto may not be implemented nor the government called to account over that fact in any case once the party is elected. Nor that the range of choice between the manifestos is extremely limited, and a whole deception and confidence trick is perpetrated to cover over the reality of the programmes the parties are putting forward and labels such as left and right attached to obscure the actual content.

Right from the time of Disraeli, "without party, parliamentary government is impossible". But this is not, as the Houghton Report said in 1976, that their function is "to maximise the participation of the people in decision-making". This aspiration is being increasingly denied by the party system, the system of party government. This should be the modern criterion for political parties. Yet, the voters are only depoliticised by these parliamentary parties. Instead of being the instrument of the electorate’s politicisation, they are what is presented to the electorate from which they are supposed to make their choice. The electorate goes into the polling booth to mark a cross on their ballot paper against a candidate, and when they do this they are basing their choice only upon which party’s leading members are supposed to govern the country over the next four or five years. The voter is supposed to think of which party leader they should choose, rather than which parliamentary candidate. So much is this the system that it is supposed to be a wasted vote, or splitting the labour movement, if anything else is thought of, or if the merits of the candidate are taken into account. And it is also entrenched within the "trade union movement" for which the Labour Party is still supposed to be the "political wing" of the workers’ movement while the trade unions are the "economic wing", despite how ever much Tony Blair denies this is the case ("fairness not favours"), and that there is supposed to be a real "Labour Party" in there somewhere if Blairism can be got rid of. This itself is a factor in the parliamentary system of representative democracy suffering a legitimacy and credibility crisis.

The whole of the new legislation that came out of the corruption and the investigation into "standards in public life" is based on this premise. To that extent, it entrenches the backward notion of the role of political parties as simply being electoral machines, and gives this constitutional legitimacy.


Election Timetable

There is a five-year limit is a limit on the length of parliaments. The Chartists pressed for annual general elections. There has been a limit of five years since 1911, from 1715 to 1911 there had been a limit of seven years, previously a three-year term under the Triennial Acts of the late seventeenth century.

The motive in 1911 was to limit House of Lords’ power of delay.

Parliament may legislate to prolong its own life (reflecting that all bills have constitutional force, i.e. there is no constitutional law over and above parliament, which is also reflected in the fact that there are no conditions identified for when such legislation may or may not be made), but the House of Lords has an absolute veto over this legislation, as it does for no other legislation. For example, general elections were suspended during the two world wars. There is no constitutional impediment to stop the Commons legislating to do away with the Lords’ veto or for that matter the Lords itself.

There is no minimum time period for a parliament, nor a minimum period of notice of dissolution of parliament (Heath in 1974 gave just one day).

Between the Royal Proclamation of dissolution and polling day there are seventeen working days. This is controlled by a statutory timetable for electoral administration.

There is no law stipulating when the newly-elected parliament should meet following a general election, except for an antiquated three-year maximum time limit still in force under the 1694 Meeting of Parliament Act. It is selected under the prerogative by the Prime Minister and will be stated in the Royal Proclamation prior to the election.

In practice, since 1945, the period between polling day and the meeting of the new parliament has never been longer than one month.

Parliament does not have any say over the timing of its own dissolution, much less does the electorate. Parliament is summarily dissolved without any prior formal approval or consent in the House of Commons or the House of Lords. The Commons therefore has no legal control over its own existence, and no opportunity to debate the merits or demerits of the timing of the general election. The Prime Minister of the government of the day, armed with the Royal Prerogative, fully reveals the absolutism of the parliamentary system of democracy by deciding on the date, then visiting the monarch to tender his or her advice at Buckingham Palace. A Press Notice will then be issued from 10 Downing Street. This specifies the dates for the dissolution of parliament, the general election, the first day of the new parliament, and the state opening. Within a week comes the Royal Proclamation, which formally dissolves parliament and sets in motion the legal procedures for holding the election.

The essential information which must go into the notice of the forthcoming election that is given to voters belong to the returning officer’s constituency are: (i) date of the election; (ii) times and place at which nomination forms for proposing prospective parliamentary candidates may be obtained, as well as time and place for completed nomination forms to be delivered to the returning officer; (iii) date by which postal or proxy votes must reach the returning officer. This notice is usually in public libraries and Post Offices.

The timetable of events after the Royal Proclamation is (add Saturdays, Sundays, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and other public holidays to the number of the day of the 17-day schedule):

Day 0 – Issue of writs

Day 1 – Receipt of writs by returning officers

Day 3 – Notice of election (no later than 4pm)

Day 4 – Postal or proxy voting applications (no later than noon)

Day 6 – Last day for delivery of nomination papers, including appointment of election agent (between 10am and 4pm)

Day 11 – Postal or proxy voting applications by ill persons (no later than noon)

Day 15 – Last day for candidates to appoint polling and counting agents

Day 17 – Polling day (between 7am and 10pm on the 11th day after the last day for delivery of nomination papers)


Nomination and the Deposit

The formal means by which a person submits his or her parliamentary candidature is by lodging with the returning officer for the constituency a nomination paper, duly completed, together with the deposit of a sum of money.

Nomination papers must be delivered to the returning officer within six working days after the Royal Proclamation calling the general election. These papers must be in a prescribed form, signed by ten voters registered on the electoral roll in the constituency, two of whom formally propose and second the nomination, with the other eight assenting. These registered voters may be members of the candidate's family.

The only personal details of the candidate required to be placed on the nomination paper are his or her names in full, and home address in full. In addition, a description of the candidate may be included. A nominated candidate must be a person who is standing in the name of a registered political party or a person who does not purport to represent any party. If the latter, either the description of the candidate in the nomination paper must be 'Independent' or no description is given. If the former, the description will refer to their registered political party.

For a party or organisation to stand, it must be a registered political party, though it may make a general declaration that it does not intend to stand in elections, or a declaration that it does not intend to stand candidates in a particular election. If the latter, the declaration must be sent to the Electoral Commission within seven days of the Royal Proclamation of the dissolution of parliament.

The individual nominated must give his or her own written consent to the returning officer, which must be attested by one witness. This form must also notify the returning officer of the candidate’s date of birth, and state that the candidate is aware of the provisions of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 and that to the best of his or her knowledge and belief he or she is not disqualified from membership of the House of Commons. Failure to fulfil this delivery (with the nomination paper or within one month before the last day for delivering the papers) will invalidate the nomination.

The qualifications for candidature are that a nominee must be 21 years old on the day of nomination and a Commonwealth citizen or citizen of the Republic of Ireland.

When the age of majority (voting age, the age of full citizenship) was reduced in 1970 to 18 years of age, the qualification that a nominee must be 21 was expressly preserved. This law dates back to 1695. All persons who are not a British or Commonwealth citizen or a citizen of the Republic of Ireland are officially legally termed "aliens". This provision dates back to the Act of Settlement of 1700. There are no other residency or voting qualifications necessary to be a candidate (e.g. they do not have to be a British resident or live in the constituency). Peers or peeresses are disqualified, as are ministers of religion who have been episcopally ordained. Severe mental illness (when sectioned) is counted as a disqualification, and also disqualified are people declared bankrupt, and those who have committed a corrupt electoral practice. As a direct result of Bobby Sands being elected MP for Fermanagh and South Tyrone in April 1981 while on hunger strike in the H-blocks, any person now who has been sentenced to more than one year’s imprisonment is disqualified from being elected during the period in which he or she is in prison. A wide range of public office holders are disqualified. The Representation of the People Act 2000 now makes it an offence to give false declarations on the nomination paper.

Candidates will not be validly nominated unless the sum of £500 is deposited by them or on their behalf with the returning officer during the time for delivery of nomination papers. The money may be handed over in cash (with only notes or one-pound coins being acceptable), or by banker’s draft, or any other manner acceptable to the returning officer. The £500 will be returned to the candidate after the general election if he or she manages to collect at least 5 per cent of the total votes cast in the constituency. If not the deposit goes to the Treasury.

The candidate must appoint an election agent to act on her or his behalf in all matters connected to her or his election. If an election agent is not appointed the candidate will be deemed to be his own agent.

The candidate and her or his election agent must make the required declaration of election expenses on the correct form and within the time notified by the returning officer. Not to do so is to commit an offence, and a late entry can disqualify a successful candidate. With the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, there are provisions relating to expenditure and donations of parties themselves, and to reporting on these.

A candidate has the right to attend the opening of postal votes and to visit the polling station. Any candidate is entitled to send free of charge one unaddressed postal communication, containing matter relating to the election not exceeding 60 grams in weight to each address in the constituency or one such communication addressed to every elector. The candidate is also entitled, free of any postal charges, to send one communication to everyone in the list of proxies. A candidate is entitled to use a suitable room in school premises free of charge (although he or she must pay for heating, lighting and cleaning and any damage to the property) at reasonable times (that is, when the school is not functioning as an educational establishment) to hold public meetings for the purpose of promoting his or her candidature. This right does not extend to the use of sixth form colleges. Reasonable notice must be given to any school, where it is intended to hold a meeting of this nature. This right exists only between the receipt of writ and the day preceding the day of election.

The principal issue with the financial deposit is whether this requirement is consistent with the democratic right of every citizen to stand for election if they wish, regardless of financial status.

The deposit was first introduced by the Representation of the People Act in 1918 at a time when the property qualifications required for electors and candidates had only just been removed. Previously, candidates had been nominated without any need to deposit sums of money with the returning officer. It was an invention of the Home Office. It was also at that time directed against the Labour Party and its trade union and working class candidates, who were regarded by the political elite as a threat to good government. The original amount of the deposit when introduced in 1918 was £150, which in today’s values is more than £2,500, and it was forfeited unless the candidates received 12.5 per cent of votes. It remained at that level until a review was conducted in the early 1980s, as a result of which the sum was increased in 1985 to the current figure of £500, with the threshold for forfeiture being lowered to 5 per cent.

Only four other states in Europe (France, Ireland, Greece and the Netherlands) have a deposit system, and the deposits in those four are much less than £500. The argument, as put forward by the then Home Secretary, Leon Brittan in 1985, has been that it ensures that the candidates "have serious aspirations to represent a constituency". It therefore seeks to weed out people are not regarded as being "serious parliamentary candidates". It clearly affects independent candidates and the small parties rather than the large electoral machines, and is against the right of all to be selected as candidates, and is related to the outdated concept of property qualifications. It is also consistent with the outdated notion of "equity" which pervades the prevailing thinking on political parties and the political process. This notion of "equity" entails that the larger parties should get preferential treatment because they are "established", "serious", "parties of government", rather than the notion of equality and the rights of all to elect and be elected. Examples are the allocation of broadcasting time, of the grants for start-up costs of being a registered party, and so on. It relegates some parties to the "fringe", and keeps the people as a whole marginalised. RCPB(ML) rejects this conception.

It is the whole process that is made the focus of attention, with parties and candidates rushing to meet the schedule after the Royal Proclamation. It encourages political parties to be electoral machines.


Campaign Expenditure

Before the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, there was no limit on the expenditure of political parties. The limit has been now set so that during the election campaign no party may spend more than around £30,000 per constituency or about £20 million if all seats are contested. If the election is in May (or June), since the election campaign is considered to begin one year before the election takes place, there will be a pro-rata reduction from the time the Act came into operation.

Local campaign expenditure is controlled in three ways: first by specifying that certain types of campaigning expenditure are illegal; second by placing a maximum figure on the total sum of money that may be spent by a parliamentary candidate in financing his or her constituency campaign; third by providing that no expenditure on constituency campaigning may be incurred by anyone apart from a candidate or his or her election agent.

1) Prohibited expenses:

No canvassers can be hired; only volunteers may canvass (or display posters, etc.). Schools may not be hired as campaign headquarters. The candidate cannot pay for transporting voters to or from polling stations; and can only use vehicles belonging to themselves or supporters.

2) Maximum limits

Personal expenses (travel, hotel costs, etc.) limited to £600. Any excess has to be paid by election agent.

Campaign expenses in county constituency: £5,483, plus 6.2 pence for every entry in the register of electors; in borough constituency: £5,483, plus 4.6 pence for every entry in the register of electors (from March 5th, 2001). Where an amount exceeds £20, a bill detailing the particulars of the expense and a receipt much vouch for the expenditure. Expenses due to be paid must be sent to the election agent within 21 days after the declaration of the election result. It is illegal to pay any accounts after that time, and they must be paid within 28 days after the declaration. The returning officer will issue a summary of the electorate.

3) No money can be spent by anyone apart from a candidate or the election agent on activities designed to promote the election of the candidate. If such money is spent it has to be authorised in writing by election agent, and then form part of the total sum of a candidate’s expenditure, subject to the statutory limit. This is taken to mean a specific candidate. Campaign expenditure for political parties is covered elsewhere (in previous elections, there was of course no limit).