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Wednesday, 8 March, 2000, 18:33 GMT
Namesakes: A close call in politics

Just when it seemed London's mayoral race had exhausted a lifetime's worth of political hi-jinks, another nugget has dropped into the media's hands.

E-cyclopedia
Labour's candidate for the capital's top job Frank Dobson has met his match in the form of Frank S Dobson, a retired publisher from Surrey.

The latter has declared his candidacy for the mayorship and will appear as an independent alongside his better-known namesake on the ballot paper on 4 May.

Almost certainly some voters will be left scratching their heads and wondering which is the "real" Frank Dobson.

Frank Dobson
Double Trouble? The Labour Party's Frank Dobson
Frank S Dobson, who is opposed to the principle of a London mayor and says his first act if elected would be to resign, has vigorously denied being just a wrecking candidate.

"I could just have easily have been Joe Bloggs and I would have come forward and have done exactly the same thing. It's a coincidence it's the same name," he insisted.

Yet while experts say there is nothing to stop the second Mr Dobson putting himself forward, it brings to mind some notorious cases of ballot box bewilderment.

The fact that Frank S Dobson was born with that name entitles him to stand under it. Changes by deed poll though are a different matter.

In the 1983 general election, a Mr Hanoman was found by the courts to have made "the electoral process a farce" after he changed his name by deed poll to Margaret Thatcher and tried to stand in the then prime minister's Finchley constituency.

Until recently though, the law was more forgiving when it came to playing with party names.

Some officially registered parties
Tourism and Farmers Party of Wales
Stamford Ward Residents' Association
Equal Parenting Party
Tax-Avoid For The Self-Employed
The Witchery Tour Party
In the general election of 1997, candidates in five constituencies, who had nothing to do with the Labour Party, stood as New Labour while, in the safe Tory seat of Hove, there was an "Official Hove Conservative".

Other examples include the Conservatory Party, Alternative Liberal Democrat and Loyal Conservative.

Such cases inevitably prompt a handful of complaints to returning officers, yet one in particular went all the way to the High Court.

When Richard Huggett stood in the 1994 European election as a Literal Democrat he received 10,000 votes, thereby splitting the Liberal Democrat vote and ensuring the Tories clung on with a majority of just 700.

Court case

Liberal Democrats, outraged that such a effortless stunt could cost them so dear, took the matter to court, which ruled that while some voters might be confused it did not amount to a breach of the Representation of the People Act.

Richard Huggett
Richard Huggett, first a Literal Democrat then a Liberal Democrat Top Choice
Buoyed by the ruling Mr Huggett stood as a Liberal Democrat Top Choice in Winchester in the '97 election.

The realisation that a spot of simple wordplay could bring hundreds of years of democracy to its knees was enough to spark the present government into action.

Under the Registration of Political Parties Act 1998, any political party can lodge its name and logo with the official registrar at a cost of 150. In doing so, it is protected from misuse by others and is afforded other rights, such as eligibility, but not entitlement, to a party political broadcast.

More than 100 parties have registered so far, from the big names such as The Labour Party and The Conservative and Unionist Party, to small outfits like Legalise Cannabis Alliance, The Flaunt It.Net Internet Party and The Pink Elephant.

Even tighter laws are in the pipeline, as part of the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Bill which is currently working its way through Parliament.

Six word rule

"Currently, a candidate not affiliated to a party can use six words to describe them on the ballot paper," says Peter Facey, of the Electoral Reform Society.

An example, he says, is a candidate with "farmer, middle-aged, organic" next to his name.

Under the proposed law, such descriptions would be ruled out, a prospect which as maybe too restrictive by Mr Facey and his colleagues.

"We are against candidates who seek to mislead voters and we appreciate what the government is trying to do in that. But there's an underlying concern that we do not want to go too far," he says.

"This new proposal is quite a fundamental change."

The E-cyclopedia can be contacted at e-cyclopedia@bbc.co.uk
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See also:

08 Mar 00 |  UK Politics
Vote for me, says Frank S Dobson
04 Jun 98 |  UK Politics
Spoiling candidates to be blocked
26 Nov 99 |  UK Politics
How London will decide
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