Did Labour’s Camden election campaign break the law?

Labour’s eve-of-poll election leaflet in Kentish Town looks like it could land them in legal hot water for breaking election law.


Photo of Labour's election leaflet


The law makes it an illegal offence to issue immitation poll cards – the idea is to make sure that official looking instructions on where and how to cast your vote must only come from the Returning Officer to protect voters against dirty tricks.

It’s a long-standing law and I can’t recall any party ever getting close to breaching it. All parties issue instructions to their supoprters about where to vote etc – but they never try to pass them off as polling cards … except now enter, stage left, Camden Labour party.

On the day before polling, they distributed letters in envelopes marked on the outside simple “Urgent: poll card inside”. The letters said, “The polling card sent with this letter …” and the package did indeed also contain an insert that contained polling card information like where and when to vote, but with the instruction to put your cross against the Labour candidate’s name as the only way of voting.

This looks like a pretty open and shut case of a breach of the law which says it is illegal to issue any poll card or a document closely resembling one. Doubtless Labour will argue that people were not fooled by their own poll card – but if the law says you can’t produce one, then you can’t – you can’t just pick and choose which election rules to follow and which to ignore. Rather ironic for the party that claims to be tough on crime…


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This entry was posted in Council by-elections and Election law.


  • Do we have a result?

  • James Graham 8th Dec '06 - 12:34am

    [jaw hits the floor] I’m amazed they even discussed doing this!

  • Liberal First 8th Dec '06 - 12:38am

    We’ve won the seat

  • Liberal First 8th Dec '06 - 12:41am

    Recount for second place between the Greens and Labour

  • What is the full result

  • How large was the margin? Anything other than a win would have been disappointing for the Libdems (considering they got 1 and 2 place last May and they’ve worked, at least, as hard has the other 2 parties this time)

  • Liberal First 8th Dec '06 - 12:48am

    The result Andrea, is a sensation. Labour lose the seat and the Green’s fail to take it on a solid base from May with their most credible national spokesperson as a the candidate.

  • LiberalFirst… you got first and second place last May. I would have been quite surprised to see Labour holding the seat. Actually if the Libdems had lost to Labour, it would have been pretty bad for them (losing against the Greens would have been another matter)

    The result should be a majority of something like 10% for the Libdems.

  • CNJ should give us better coverage…..


  • Ah, the Libdems held confortably a byelection in Horsham (versus the tories)

  • Liberal First 8th Dec '06 - 1:03am

    Full results

    LD 1093
    Grn 812
    Lab 808
    Con 198

  • If the photographs depicted above are accurate, David Boothroyd, the message on the envelope is quite clear – that inside is to be found the POLLING CARD.

    You may be able to distinguish between an official polling card and this Labour propaganda. But I very much doubt if ALL the electorate is as discerning as yourself. And if they are told that the envolope contains a “polling card”, then a polling card is what it is.

    The Labour Party has defined it as such. Watch out – if they are not stopped now, they will use it against you Tories next.

  • Angus J Huck 8th Dec '06 - 1:12am

    No good, David. You have to quote the statute, otherwise we are not going to have a clue what the crime actually is. What is the actus reus? What EXACTLY does the statute say? And what is the mens rea? Is it a crime of specific intent or basic intent? Can it be committed recklessly (without the need to prove intention)? Always suspicious of people who pontificate about the law, because they frequently don’t know what they are talking about. What I see with my own eyes is an envelope blank but for the words (in grey letters) “URGENT: POLL CARD INSIDE”.

    Now, bear in mind that the Tower Hamlets case was brought by means of an Election Petition. There it was necessary to prove that the impugned leaflet influenced the election. For a criminal prosecution to succeed under s 94, it may be sufficient to prove that the agent committed a prohibited act with the requisite mens rea. Rather like perjury. You don’t have to prove that anyone believed it. (Rather a bad analogy, because it may be necessary to prove that the defendent intended the recipient to believe it was an official poll card – or was reckless, not that anyone actually did believe it was.)

  • David Boothroyd seems to be spreading his bitterness over the whole Web. He is wrong of course: what Labour’s done here is no more legal than in all the places where they’ve “issued” their own postal votes by the hundred.

    Congratulations to Camden Lib Dems for a good result in an unusual 3-way marginal.

  • It looks like this wasn’t Labour’s only dirty trick – they also tried to rig an online poll:

  • nigelashton 8th Dec '06 - 10:03am

    I think David Boothroyd is probably right. The 1995 Representation of the People Act uses the phrase “so closely resembling an official poll card as to be calculated to deceive” It is S.94 of the 1995 RPA.

    94 Imitation poll cards
    No person shall for the purpose of promoting or procuring the election of any candidate at a parliamentary election [or a local government election to which this section applies] issue any poll card or document so closely resembling an official poll card as to be calculated to deceive, and subsections (2) and (3) of section 92 above apply as if an offence under this section were an offence under that section.

  • The leaflet you have linked to doesn’t say that it is a poll card though – was it distributed in an envelope saying the person’s poll card was enclosed and with a covering letter calling it their poll card?

  • nigelashton 8th Dec '06 - 10:52am

    Looking at the image at the top of this page the envelope says “URGENT:POLL CARD INSIDE” and you can just make out some of the wording on the letter “The polling card sent with this letter shows you where to go to vote”. I would need to see an image of an actual card to form a view on whether it ‘closely resembled an official poll card’. Even if it did it would be difficult to prove that it was “calculated to deceive”.

  • Martin Hoscik 8th Dec '06 - 12:51pm

    Can I just point ore the phrase “illegal offence” that you cant have legal offences so the word illegal is a bit redundant!

  • No. The it was a self-seal window envelope with just the printing of URGENT: POLL CARD INSIDE on it.

  • hywelmorgan 8th Dec '06 - 2:43pm

    I’m with Mark on this a bit – the card linked to be David is missing a lot of the bits needed to be a poll card – it doesn’t say it is a polling card, no address or poll number, clearly only refers to the Conservative candidates. Hard to see it could be regarded as a poll card

    My advise on doing anything that could be considered a poll card was to (a) put the party logo on and (b) somewhere on it – in a reasonable font size – put the words “this is not an official poll card. You could also make a case that a “new” style imprint with the party name makes it clear it is from a political party not the returning officer.

    The bit I think is borderline is the printing on the outside of the envelope. That said taking the mailing as a whole it is clearly a political leaflet. Whether that would make it inside/outside the law I’m not sure but I wouldn’t have advised someone to do that in my ALDC days.

    Our interpretation of what we put on leaflets as experienced political hacks and how the courts look at it is not always the same. R v Rowe ex p Mainwaring makes interesting reading on this front as regards the point size of imprints for example 🙂

  • > it was standard practice until not very long ago …
    Perhaps until enactment of RPA 1983 or whenever it was? I note that the quaint historical example you provide wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Heartbeat, even allowing for the frequently archaic typography of Tory electoral literature.

    BTW congrats to the Camden campaign team. As Andrea notes, the 10% majority is bang on target and provides a platform for squeezing both greens and cons in any future parliamentary campaign.

  • > Before 1983 it was section 81 of the Representation of the People Act 1949. That was the law when this poll card was issued

    Thanks David. Also very quaint and an excellent prop for use in a future episode of Life on Mars. However the current debate relates to whether it is legal in 2006 to issue lookalike polling cards. Both the examples you have so far produced are so antiquated they don’t even reach the last quarter of the previous century, and my original question was specifically whether these museum pieces have any relevance to the legality of this kind of tactic in the current day and age. A question that I note you have deliberately chosen to sidestep with the unmistakeable gait of a troll.

  • hywelmorgan 9th Dec '06 - 12:09am

    AFAIK (and I ain’t going to spend the time checking!) the wording of the section in the 1949 Act was the same as the 83 act.

    Of course just because someone did something in 1973 doesn’t mean it was legal – my understanding of the Richmond case is that it ruled several practices that were common practice across the parties as not being legal.

    If someone could post a scan of the relevant card we might be a bit better informed but frankly I doubt the CPS are going to be that excited about it.

  • I think the important point to remember here is that electoral law is only ever changed by losers.

  • Duncan Borrowman 9th Dec '06 - 2:03am

    Sorry David, all parties have skated on ice on this. But Labour have clearly finally picked a thin bit and cracked it.

  • tonygreaves 9th Dec '06 - 3:41pm

    Some points here from a “young ” Liberal Democrat:

    (1) Under the 1949 RPA Act it was illegal to issue a poll card at parliamentary elections, where the RO was under a duty to do so. At local elections the RO did not do so and parties often did. (I have many examples in my files published by me).

    (2) This was changed at some point – I think before 1983 and possibly in the 1972 Local Government Act but I am not sure. ROs at local elections (except – in England – parish council elections) were given a duty to issue poll cards and it became illegal for candidates to do so.
    (I think you can still issue them for parish council elections?)

    (3) The real point of a poll card is that they contain the NAME and ELECTORAL NUMBER of each elector. We used to spend hours writing them out. In my view (IANAL) the presence or absence of such information is crucial to whether the law has been broken.

    Tony Greaves

  • Thanks Tony – the poll card’ as they describe it has the words:
    Below are listed your poll number and where you vote

    It’s pretty expolict at suggesting it is the official card…

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