The Trials of Forming a Party

Fair warning; this is probably going to be another very long post. It’s all about the long and complex story of our party registration for Something New. I’ve not really told this story before; when I finally could, it was too close to the election to relate, but now there is time.

TL;DR: Something New formed in September 2014, the Electoral Commission objected, and we only got finally registered on 6th March, 8 weeks before the election, only 3 weeks before nominations opened, and after a lot of stress. Want to know why? Read on…

Do we need a party?

In late June 2014, I announced that I’d be standing for election in the 2015 general election, using the OpenPolitics Manifesto as my platform. It was an experiment in seeing how accessible democratic participation was, and in taking an Open Source approach to politics.

I initially announced as an Independent, but I was never really happy with that. We’d had a few discussions within the manifesto project about forming a party, about what we could be called, and so on, but nothing serious had surfaced. However, I firmly believed (and still do) that in our current system, you have to have a party to build a serious movement. If I stood as an Independent, there wouldn’t be anything to build on afterwards.

As for joining other parties, that’s an option, and something that people should do more, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. The entire approach of the open source manifesto was important, and joining any existing party would have meant dropping that. This was a truly new way of doing things, and it deserved its own identity.

Something New?

Over the next few weeks, I had a lot of coffee with a lot of people, and eventually met up with a guy called Alex Hilton for a beer one evening, after being put in touch by a colleague. Alex was a long-time political animal, but was disillusioned with the current state of affairs. I went along, expecting an interesting chat and an hour of political advice, perhaps.

As it turned out, we got on pretty well, and agreed on a lot of things, including the need for new choices in our electoral system.

Halfway through the evening, Alex said that he thought British politics needed a new fresh brand, without the baggage of the past. And he said he had it. He said it was something new.

I waited for him to say what it was.

Something New

“No, that’s it. Something New”

I went through the initial stages that many people do when they hear the name. “That’s daft, you can’t… wait, that’s not bad… no, that’s awesome”. It worked on so many levels, and before too long it was clear that it was a brand that reflected what we were actually working for.

We decided to form the party soon after that, based around a core set of values, and using the manifesto for the details.

Registering the Party

So, we started the paperwork. A political party is a bit like a company, in that you need at least three named positions, but two of them can be held by the same person. However, I roped in Paul, my brother in law, and we got started. Alex was Treasurer, I was Party Leader, and Paul was Nominating Officer. All three of those are required by the commission. No anarchist collectives here.

After doing a simple constitution and financial scheme (basically how we would handle the money), we paid the £150 registration and sent in the forms. Easy!

As it turned out, Something New had been registered before, by Alex. He’d never done much with it though, and had let the registration lapse by not filling in the returns a few months earlier. This may have worked against us later, though we’ll never really know.

First Refusal

Stop

On the 27th October, we got a really annoying email from the Electoral Commission.

I am writing to let you know that the Commission has considered your application and is unable to register your proposed party name.

Er, this was registered before. What gives?

Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA), when considering an application to register a political party, we must ensure that the proposed name is not the same as, or would not be likely to result in electors confusing it with another registered party. Upon consideration of your application, we have reached the view that the proposed name is confusingly similar to an existing party description registered by the Democratic Republican Party ‘For a new beginning’, such that a voter would be likely to be confused between the parties if the proposed party name were approved for registration.

Wait, what? “For a new beginning”? Really?

Naming Conflicts

It turns out that under PPERA, the commission does have to check new registrations against others to avoid confusion. This comes from instances where someone registered the “Literal Democrats”, and the more recent example of “An Independence from Europe” in the 2014 EU elections. It seemed the Commission were getting a lot more careful.

Still, ours seemed pretty different. “Something New” vs “For a new beginning”. And the second one was a description, not a name! (It wasn’t until a lot later that I realised that only name or description is shown on the ballot, so the DRP could stand with just “For a new beginning” on the ballot paper.)

There was also the fact that the last time Something New had been registered, the DRP had already been registered and had the same description. The same process a year previously had gone exactly the opposite way. Something had obviously changed.

Appeal

OK, well, let’s just talk to them. Let’s work out how to appeal the decision. Turns out this was really hard.

We had a look at the EC complaints page, which said:

Complaints about decisions made as part of our statutory enforcement work, or other statutory regulatory decisions taken by the Commission (for example registration of party names, descriptions and emblems) are dealt with under our regulatory policies and enforcement policy and/or case management procedures. Depending on the nature of the matter case there may be further rights of challenge by way of statutory appeals or judicial review.

Talking to the Electoral Commission, we were told:

You can complain about a decision on your application to register the party if you believe we have not adhered to proper processes in making the decision on your application. Your concerns will be independently investigated under the Commission’s complaints procedure. The information about how to lodge a complaint is contained in our guidance. As the guidance states, the complaints procedure will look at the process that led to the decision and not the decision itself. Appeals against the outcome of the decision will not be considered. You may have rights of challenge by way of judicial review to pursue this.

So we can appeal the procedure but not the decision? We can’t just talk to someone? Judicial review involves taking them to court, that’s ludicrous! There must be a better way!

But no. No luck in all our attempts to discuss with them.

Because the only thing we could do was appeal the procedure, we started trying to find out what the procedure was via FOI. I could tell already, this problem was going to be a massive waste of time and energy, but the name was too good to let go.

At this point, we were also trying to get in touch with the Democratic Republican Party to see if they themselves objected to the name, and if they’d help us out with the EC. No luck yet though.

Pre-action letter

Bob Loblaw

Nothing was helping, so in early November we took the first step towards judicial review. We knew that we couldn’t actually take them to court, but the first step was to write a pre-action letter outlining our case and intention. If that didn’t work, then we’d have to drop it.

We opened the letter with a request for a simpler process, and that we didn’t want to do it this way, but it was the only way open to us. We were trying to keep them onside as much as we could, and not annoy them. After all, they held the power.

The letter outlined that eleven different parties use the word “New”, the only shared word causing the objection; many more share other words. The only other shared part was the suffix ‘-ing’, used by 107 parties. Also, we pointed out that we were being stopped due to a conflict with another micro-party, and confusion was very unlikely.

The whole thing felt pretty stupid to write. A four page letter about basics of the English language. Still, we had to, so we did.

Talking to the DRP

About a week after this, in mid November, the Democratic Republican Party got in touch in response to our emails. While I was in a pub being filmed with the Whigs and Populace for a Daily Politics report, Alex was having a Skype conversation in the corner with Peter Kellow, party leader of the DRP.

Turns out Peter had a pretty low opinion of the EC, but agreed with us on a lot of things politically, so was willing to help. Unfortunately he wanted to wait and see, and make something of it if the EC didn’t make the decision we wanted. He was looking for a fight. We, however, were looking to move on.

Anyway, after a couple more conversations, he agreed to remove the description from their party registration, and tell the EC he didn’t agree with the exclusion. Looked like we were sorted!

Headdesk

Another week after, we got a response from the Commission’s lawyer. It was very long and detailed, but consisted basically of a very long “we get to decide and we disagree with you”, finishing with something along the lines of “you could have just talked to us instead of threatening court”.

AAARGH.

As we wrote back:

I would like to contest that I did raise my concerns in detail with your colleague, and I was told that judicial review was my only recourse as I have no reason to believe you have made an error of procedure. I was not made aware of any informal process for raising this with you.

What a mess.

However, by now DRP had agreed to remove the strapline, so we asked the Electoral Commission to look at it again based on that new situation.

Some FOI fun

We’d started looking into the law, and into PPERA itself. The act says, in section 28.4.a.ii:

Where a party sends an application to the Commission … , the Commission shall grant the application unless in their opinion the party proposes a registered name which would be likely to result in electors confusing that party with a party which is already registered in respect of the relevant part of the United Kingdom.

What does “be likely” mean in the eyes of the law? It seems completely undefined. So, let’s find out what the EC’s internal guidance on this is. They must have a policy that defines what’s “likely”.

Using WhatDoTheyKnow, I wrote a Freedom of Information request, asking for the guidance, and whether it had changed recently. I eventually got a response; the internal guidance is here, and really is just as vague:

31.4 It is necessary for the purposes of section 28(4)(a)(ii) that the elector’s confusion with another party is ‘likely’ and as such it will not be sufficient if confusion is a mere possibility.

Nothing in there more specific at all, and no change. So the written guidance was the same as in 2013 when the party name was accepted, and yet this time it was refused.

How can you appeal against the procedure when the procedure is basically “whatever we reckon”? Utterly useless, but a dead end it seemed. All down to human judgement.

Incidentally, at this point, we’re almost into campaign season proper, and we can’t open a bank account, can’t fundraise, etc. This is getting annoying. We’re getting worried, and start thinking about new names just in case.

Christmas Present

Eyebrows

On Christmas Eve, another month later, I got an email from the EC saying that until the DRP remove the description, our application cannot proceed.

I thought they’d done that. Turns out they’d told the EC they wanted to, but not done all the paperwork

After the Christmas break, I wrote a very nice email to Peter asking him to follow through and basically set us free. This is getting really tight now, and we’re worrying a lot.

Text Comparison

Peter agreed to sort that out, helpfully, and also during our conversation shared a list he obtained under FOI about other rejections that had happened over the previous few months; they were having their own issues with the EC at the time, amid concerns that the Commission might make them change their name.

Anyway, this unleashed the data nerd in me; I had a list of all the rejections, and the text which they were rejected for. Now I could find out what the commission considered “likely” to confuse.

Hackerman

I put all the names in a CSV file and wrote a bit of code to run them through some text similarity algorithms. I started with the Levenshtein distance, though that’s not great for different-length phrases, so moved to the Ruby similar_text gem.

The results are in a CSV on GitHub, and it was pretty clear straight away that we were an outlier. Every other rejection had a similarity score of over 50%, most over 60%. We were at 31% similar.

It didn’t really matter at this point, but it was interesting to see, and have some hard evidence to back up our view that the rejection was unjustified. I ran the same algorithm against the full list of parties for a laugh, and needless to say there were plenty that were more similar than ours that weren’t having trouble.

Should the Electoral Commission have an internal similarity test based on a particular algorithm? I think perhaps they should, otherwise the whole system seems very arbitrary. At least as a mathematical check, if not for the final decision.

Breakthrough

In mid-January, we get confirmation from the Electoral Commission that the DRP description has been removed, and that we’re back in the queue for review.

I start to feel hopeful. I don’t believe that the EC are being awkward on purpose, and now that the blocker is cleared, we should be good to go. I just have to hope that’s true.

Others are less sure, and the conversations about whether we need to get a new name rumble on.

The Long Wait

My confidence starts to fade over the next 6 weeks as we wait to hear; I keep calling, keep offering help and information, but we’re just in the queue for review and need to wait.

I can’t find out how long this will take, at all. In late February, only a month away from nomination time, I’m getting really nervous. This might all be too late. I might have to be an Independent after all.

The Electoral Commission are SLOW.

Then, at the end of February, I finally get an email saying that we should be reviewed on Thursday. The committee apparently meet once a week(!) to review cases, and we should be up this week. As far as I can tell we’ve literally just been sitting in a pile for a month and a half.

I call back on the Monday after. Nope. Probably this week instead.

Success!

Yes!

It seems like I called a thousand times, though I think it was only another week’s delay before, finally, we got it!

I am pleased to inform you that we have approved your application to register Something New and the party is now on the Great Britain register of political parties.

They objected to a couple of our descriptions, and had left them off, but who cares! We’re in!

We were registered as PP2486, just two and a bit weeks before nominations for the election opened. After 6 months of the process, that was far too close for comfort.

What a pain

This was probably the biggest hurdle we had to get over in the whole election process. It wasted a lot of time, energy, and caused a lot of stress that was (in my view) completely unnecessary. Everything else went smoothly.

I don’t believe, unlike some, that the Commission were being obstructive intentionally. I do think though that their combination of vague internal guidance, unhelpful appeal procedures, inconsistent account management, and an extremely slow bureaucracy can make it look that way, sometimes.

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