Everyone loves a word cloud, right?
Political party names and logos are a key feature of any ballot paper. Often, they are the only information voters use to guide their choice in the polling station.
Those words and descriptions are tightly regulated. If a candidate wants to use a party name on the ballot, that party needs to be on the Electoral Commission’s register of political parties. In today’s blog, we take a look at the history and makeup of the UK party register, and discuss how we currently use it and what we’d like to do to open it up to a wider audience.
We’ve recently finished some work to improve our political party information on WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk - take a look for yourself!
The origins of the register
Why a registration system in the first place?1 When ballot papers were first introduced in 1872, political party names didn’t appear at all. Instead, candidates were asked for their ‘rank, profession or calling’, which was appended to their name on the ballot.
In 1948, following attempts by candidates to add their party to this description, the law was amended to explicitly forbid the use of party labels on ballots. In the words of the 1947 Home Office committee on electoral law reform: “a man’s claim to membership of a party might sometimes provoke embarrassing controversy… the nomination paper should describe the candidate and not the cause.”
It took another twenty years for the principle of party labels to finally become accepted. In 1969, the law was changed to allow candidates to provide an (optional) description of up to six words on the ballot paper.
However, the 1969 reform was too liberal: anyone could now put whatever they liked on the ballot paper, with the onus on the other candidates to challenge their validity. This came to prominence during the 1990s, when a string of attempts were made by independent candidates to imitate genuine parties. In 1994, the Liberal Democrats famously missed out on a European Parliament seat by 700 votes, after a ‘Literal Democrat’ polled more than 10,000; three years later the Labour party blamed its loss of Bracknell council on a group of ‘New Labour’ candidates. The final straw came in the 1997 general election, when various people attempted to stand as ‘Liberal Democrat Top Choice’, ‘New Labour’, ‘Official Conservative’, or ‘Conservatory party’ candidates. Lawyers for the real political parties had to rush to secure last-minute injunctions to prevent these candidatures, not always successfully.
The solution, in 1998, was the Registration of Political Parties Act. Henceforth, candidates could only use registered descriptions with permission from the central party. This also added the option for parties to register black-and-white ‘emblems’ (logos) for use on the ballot paper.
The register was originally administered by Companies House, but was transferred to the newly created Electoral Commission in 2001. In this context the register serves as both a set of rules for what parties can use on the ballot paper, and a system for overseeing party finance.
The register today
Anyone can apply to register a political party in the UK. All that is needed is a constitution, a ‘financial scheme’, £150, and one friend willing to serve as one of the three required officers.2 Once the application is submitted, it is published by the Commission, and reviewed according to certain guidelines. These guidelines are designed to ensure that descriptions are not likely to confuse, mislead, or offend voters. As part of this process, the Commission checks to see if any other party holds similar descriptions.3 Anyone can comment on a party application, and the Commission publishes all decisions it makes.
It is not the case that every political party can contest every sort of election. Parties need to specify which nations they intend to field candidates in, as well as whether they wish to stand in parliamentary elections. There is also a category of ‘minor party’, which can only fight town, parish, or community council elections in England and Wales.
There are, in fact, two party registers in the UK: one for Great Britain, and one for Northern Ireland. The only difference between the two relates to donations (parties in GB can only accept money from UK-based sources, while NI parties can also take donations from the Republic of Ireland). In practice, this split has the slightly confusing effect of allowing two different parties to have the same name, although they can never appear on the same ballot paper together.4
Once a party is registered, it is given an entry on the register and a unique ID number. The entry gives basic information about the party, including its name, leadership and address, and which UK nations it has decided to field candidates in. Parties can also add a maximum of twelve descriptions and three emblems, as well as other information such as translations (most commonly, Welsh) and alternative names. It’s possible for two parties to register the same description and run for election on a joint platform. Political parties must renew their registration status annually.
The register itself is accessed via the website of the Electoral Commission.
How many parties are there in the UK?
By the time the register was taken over by the Commission in 2001, fewer than 200 parties were on it. This figure rose sharply every year until 2007, when it stood at slightly over 450. The number has remained between 380 and 500 ever since, with a peak in 2015 when it briefly reached the 490s.
On 1 August 2023, 404 political parties were registered in the UK: 374 in Britain (of which 21 are minor parties) and 30 in Northern Ireland. There are also sixteen electoral alliances with joint descriptions.
Of the parties on the GB register, 94% are registered to stand in England, 37% in Scotland and 37% in Wales.
|Nation||All parties registered in this nation||Parties registered in this nation only|
Party descriptions in practice
Ballot descriptions are not always as straightforward as you might expect. This is because parties can register pretty much any text they like, and use it in place of the party name on the ballot. Examples of this include parties whose commonly used name is not their actual name (example: The Conservative and Unionist party), or parties which maintain independent branches and branding for each nation of the UK (example: Scottish Labour).
Between them, the UK’s political parties have registered 555 emblems (download them all here!) and over 3,000 individual ballot descriptions, which use all the sorts of words you’d expect.
Of course, party descriptions don’t have to feature the party name at all. This is used by some to reserve certain descriptions so others can’t register them (until recently, the Green party had ‘Ecology’ as a description for this reason). It’s also useful for elections which feature party lists (such as regional constituencies in the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments), when parties can have two descriptions on the ballot (ie. party name and a slogan).
However, any description can be used on its own. For example, in 2021 an independent candidate supported by the Liberal Democrats ran for election to Shropshire council under the standalone description ‘Focus Team’, with no indication that this is a political party description. There are literally hundreds of examples of descriptions like this (perhaps as many as 500 on the current register), although in practice it’s usual for a party to only use descriptions containing their name. The issue is also mitigated by use of emblems, which often contain the party name as well.
At present, WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk doesn’t display the exact description used by a candidate, only the full party name. This is partly because we haven’t come up with a solid enough solution for spotting mistakes, and partly because our method of copying the register squashes English/non-English translations together, meaning that ‘Labour Party’ would be rendered as ‘Labour Party | Llafur’ on English candidates. We’re working on it!
Opening the register
The party register is currently quite hard to access. The Electoral Commission website combines both the financial and party registers in one lookup, which requires understanding of a fairly complex series of filters to use effectively. Register entries do not provide definitions of terms like ‘description’. Historic information is not displayed anywhere. For the average interested citizen, the register is probably a bit of a black box.
At Democracy Club, we maintain a copy of the party register and use it to run our candidates database. This allows us to attach party labels and other information to candidates. Every time a candidate for a new party is added to our database, we auto-generate a page for that party on WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk. These pages are linked to from each candidates’ profile, to help voters understand a bit more about the people they are voting for.
We’ve now finished the first piece of work to entirely revise these pages. You can find a list of all parties with candidates in our database on the ‘parties’ page of WhoCanIVoteFor (link in footer). We’ve also added filters to allow you to view parties by registration status and nation.
The individual party pages now display emblems, ballot descriptions, alternative names, nation, any translations they have registered, and the deregistration date if applicable. We also show (recently) past descriptions and emblems, something the Commission’s site does not support. Crucially, each party page also links to the relevant entry in the Commission’s register, bypassing the need to use the clunky Commission lookup.
The initial purpose of these pages is to help voters understand the candidates on their ballot paper, especially where the party name as displayed on WhoCanIVoteFor (‘Conservative and Unionist Party’) does not match the description used (‘Local Conservatives’). The political party pages are some of the most popular pages on WCIVF, especially when the party is new.
We hope that this is only the first step towards a more comprehensive resource.
Our long-term goal is a complete database of political parties, filtered and searchable by factors such as candidates and geography. Once complete, this framework could be used to display organisational information, manifestos, details about candidates and financial information from the Commission’s party spending database. As an archive, the database would allow historians and political scientists to understand what candidates were able to use on the ballot paper in a particular election (“Liberal Democrats - To stop Brexit”), or how party officers changed over time. Ultimately, we want to help demystify this crucial but often misunderstood aspect of our electoral system.
If you’re an individual or organisation with an interest in this topic, please get in touch if you think you could help us push this project forward. If you want to understand what we do more broadly, you can find a summary of our work for the next general election on our blog.
The UK has a very open regime compared, for example, to Ireland, which requires new parties to have 300 members, or three councillors, or a parliamentarian. Consequently, the current Irish register of political parties plus appendices fits neatly onto twenty sides of A4. ↩