Good news from the Cabinet Office, with its announcement of pre-legislative scrutiny of plans to increase the timetable for general elections and, more significantly, for Parliamentary by-elections:
- the deadline for parties to nominate candidates should continue to be 6 days after the start of the timetable, so parties will have the same time as now to put forward candidates to stand for election. In practice this will now be 19, rather than 11, days before the date of poll, which will allow administrators to begin printing ballot papers further in advance of polling day;
- provision should be made for updated versions of the electoral register to be created at an earlier point in the timetable to allow postal votes to be distributed to new registration applicants earlier than is currently possible.
The change is primarily driven by electoral administrators wanting more time to carry out their work, especially the extra work involved now in handling postal votes compared to ten or more years ago.
It is also, however, very good news for the public who have been faced with having fewer and fewer opportunities to find out about candidates and their policies during by-elections as the timetable for them has effectively been cut by four weeks over the years. As I put it in 2009:
The average length of Parliamentary by-election campaign has shrunk by four weeks since the 1970s, sharply narrowing the chance for the public to find out about the candidates presented to them and stiffling openness in the candidate selection processes which frequently now have to be run at break-neck pace …
At a time when nominally all parts of the electoral system are deeply concerned with increasing public interest and involvement in our elections, slashing the length of election campaigns runs in completely the opposite direction.
I understand the situation of those who decide to move the writ increasingly quickly, whichever party they are from. They are working fully within the law and, given the law gives them discretion to choose when to move the writ, choosing the date that best suits your own party is understandable. I’ve given advice on this basis myself in the past, particularly for local by-elections.
But there comes a point where everyone should take a step back and ask whether it’s right that the rules are written this way. Parliamentary by-elections are now in practice far too short to offer much meaningful choice between individuals. If you think politics should just be about choosing between parties, then that doesn’t matter. But if you think the individual merits of candidates matter, then the huge cut in the length of Parliamentary by-elections is a real problem.
(Incidentally, the proposals also include fixing the problem that can hit Labour/Co-op Party candidates, namely that a candidate jointly nominated by two different parties runs into problems in using one of their emblems on the ballot paper following an Electoral Commission judgement on how the law should be interpreted. Given the media’s past form on this issue, expect fixing a Labour Party difficulty to be mis-reported as part of a secret plot to allow Coalition Government joint candidates. The problem for local council candidates was fixed earlier this year.)