Electoral terrorism

Observations on dead candidates

The government may have failed to force parliament to consent to the 90-day detention of terrorist suspects, but fear not - the nation is about to be made safe from a terrorist act that might have wiped out the entire cabinet in one go. No, this isn't a modern-day version of the Gunpowder Plot. This is terrorism of the legal loophole variety.

Alarm bells started ringing in May, when Jo Harrison, the Liberal Democrat candidate for the safe Tory seat of South Staffordshire, died just days before polling day. The election was postponed and the sitting MP, Sir Patrick Cormack, was made to wait seven weeks before finally being re-elected.

The ordeal got Cormack thinking. What if someone higher up the political hierarchy had been left in limbo for this length of time? What if some crafty saboteur stood against the PM or the entire cabinet, and then committed suicide? Action had to be taken. Cormack's private member's bill - co-sponsored by Robin Cook - did not receive sufficient time in the Commons, but ministers encouraged him to table the necessary measures as amendments to the Electoral Administration Bill.

The bill will not give voters the power to elect a deceased candidate (Missouri voters elected Mel Carnahan to the US Senate in 2000 despite Carnahan having died in a plane crash weeks earlier). Instead, Cormack's amendments will minimise the delay that a candidate's death could cause. The election will take place no more than 28 days after the death, giving parties enough time to find a replacement. If the dead candidate is independent, no delay will be incurred.

Cormack's amendments also stipulate that no candidate will be able to stand for election in more than one constituency. He has cited the example of Catherine Taylor-Dawson, of the Vote For Yourself Rainbow Dream Ticket party, who stood in all four Cardiff seats in May, polling fewer than 300 votes across the city, including just one vote in Cardiff North. Imagine the impact of Taylor-Dawson's (happily averted) death: not only would Cardiff be entirely without representation in Westminster, but in the event of a hung parliament, those four missing MPs might be the difference between one government or another, sparking a constitutional crisis.

This measure also removes the possibility of a single kamikaze attack on the cabinet. I'm sure we'll all sleep more easily now. Labour still might have to worry about committing its own form of electoral suicide, but that's another matter.