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Conor Burns MP: My passionate belief in the Conservative Party and my concerns about today's electoral registration bill - which could pave the way for Coalition candidates at the next election

Conor Burns is MP for Bournemouth West and PPS to Owen Paterson, the Northern Ireland Secretary

BURNS-CONORAn interesting debate may well be about to begin springing from a little-noticed Written Ministerial Statement about electoral administration put out shortly before last year’s summer recess. It was made by the excellent Mark Harper who it has been my privilege to know for some 20 years since meeting him at a Wessex YC Conference in what is now my Bournemouth West constituency. Mark’s full statement can be read here:

Much of the aims he outlines are laudable. However there is one bit that, in the light of developments, catches my attention.  A day earlier, Mark said the following:

“We also propose to address an oversight in existing legislation passed during the previous Government’s time in office which allows a candidate standing for a single party in a UK parliamentary election to use an emblem on their ballot paper, but does not allow jointly nominated candidates to do so. This issue has primarily affected candidates standing on behalf of the Labour party and the Co-operative party. The proposal will ensure that electoral law is consistent on this issue.”

This all seems innocuous enough. Except I’m not certain I can recall too many occasions when a ‘Co-operative Party’ candidate has stood against a Labour Party candidate.  Or in my three general elections as a Conservative Candidate ever hearing of a 'Co-operative Party Candidate’ bidding to be included in hustings. Yet this part of the Bill (which comes before Parliament today for a 2nd Reading) stands. (The Full House of Commons Library research paper can be seen here with the key part at Section 9.5.)

My regard for Mark Harper is enormous.  Indeed, his patience and tenacity in taking difficult bills, such as the AV referendum Bill, through the Commons has been impressive and raised the high regard in which he was already by many colleagues. Few doubt that his loyalty and resolve even in defending his boss Nick Clegg’s plans to abolish the House of Lords will gain a deserved reward to a position where he can show his true skills and develop his true instincts.

Yet I have a niggling concern about this one measure, and whether it can truly be about whether a candidate at a particular election has an emblem next to their name. In fact, this little anomaly has been resolved for all other elections. As the House of Commons paper on the Bill makes clear:
“The election rules relating to the use of emblems on ballot papers in certain other elections were amended before the elections in May 2011: the Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2011 were debated on 7 March 2011 in the Second Delegated Legislation Committee.

Mark Harper has explained that these regulations resolved the issue for candidates in the mayoral elections and noted that the Government has:

"... laid statutory instruments to deal with it for the local and parish elections, and the conduct orders deal with it for the devolved elections and the Northern Ireland local elections. We will introduce the necessary secondary legislation for the European Parliament elections and the Greater London authority elections next year and in 2014, not in that order."

However, he then went on to make the following point:

“The hon. Gentleman is right to say that to fix the issue for the general election will require primary legislation. We have already set out that we will have a Bill that deals with individual electoral registration and other matters. It is our intention to use that Bill, or if that proves to be unnecessary, we will use another one. That is the likeliest option, however, and we can confirm that is our intention to fix this problem ahead of the 2015 general election.”

Hence the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill before the House of Commons today. There may be nothing more to this than a desire to use the main purpose of the Bill – individual voter registration – to address a small point.  But the need to do it for general elections I am less sure of.

Some of the coalition’s most difficult moments have come when some have sought to suggest it should extend beyond the 2015 General Election - and when others coming from the opposite but equally unhelpful angle have suggested it should be terminated as soon as possible.

I have never subscribed to either view.  I support the coalition and have voted with it in every division at which I have been present.  Save for the proposals for the House of Lords which I have spoken against on the floor of the Commons I have supported the coalition agreement even though very few Conservative MPs knew what was in it before it was signed.

I continue to support David Cameron and the Government and wish it to succeed.  I believe it is a Government born out of an indecisive election result that has resulted in two parties with differing values and instincts coming together in the national interest to rescue Britain from the tragedy we inherited from Labour.

But I believe passionately in the Conservative Party and what we could offer the British people as a stand-alone and unencumbered Government.  It is the idea contained in the Bill for two party and jointly nominated candidates for a general election that makes me nervous.  And should make everyone who yearns for a Conservative Government nervous.

I am on record as saying that some of the best and brightest people I have known in the youth wings of the Conservative movement have left us for UKIP.  I believe these are patriotic and decent people whose core instincts and belief in Britain I share.  I also believe that the time is fast approaching when we will need to make common cause with them to reassert of place in an international trading, global looking, self governing country than enjoys trade with Europe but governs itself.  As I look at the mess that the EU is in and remember how all of us who predicted this were mocked and laughed it I wonder if the instincts we had then are not still right today. But only the Conservative Party – not UKIP – will be a big enough vehicle for the purpose I describe.

Anyone thinking – and I know there are some – that coalition candidates are the answer to the next election would do well to wonder if, having ceded the principle of two party candidates in a General Election there might not be another party starting to nestle 12% or so in the polls with whom we may wish to make common cause for Britain. I hope I am wrong, but 'emblems on ballot papers’ may have far reaching consequences.


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