Cancelling local elections was undoubtedly the right call but it’s not without consequences. It’s undoubtedly wise of the government to heed the advice of the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Electoral Commission and others. Going ahead with the May polls presented several unacceptable risks: bringing together people just when we should be distancing; disenfranchising those who had to suddenly go into self-isolation and, worst of all, the risk that with a significant proportion of the work force ill, councils wouldn’t have the capacity to deliver the elections at all – at least without diverting resource from other frontline services. We need elections, but they have to run flawlessly. Electoral services in councils across this country have a fantastic record of making that happen, but we already live in an era in which, by many measures, public confidence in democracy is declining and so if we can’t guarantee that elections can be delivered securely, safely and in a way in which people can have absolute confidence in then it’s better to postpone.
And, of course, there’s a question about turn out and legitimacy. In France, where in general far more activities have been restricted, local elections went ahead at the weekend, but they did see a 20% drop in turn out to around 45%. That’s still significantly higher than turn out for elections in most parts of the UK. If we saw a similar drop it would be highly damaging.
So it’s clearly the right decision, but we shouldn’t pretend it’s without consequences.
There’s a real risk of democratic deficit for millions of citizens, perhaps, most obviously in mayoral areas where sitting mayors are effectively gifted another year in office. Or in Northamptonshire where local elections were delayed last year to align them with the replacement of the county council with two new unitary authorities. By the time elections come next year many voters will not have been to the local polls in six years. Meanwhile a county council that’s already been abolished limps on.
The delay also disrupts the rhythm of the national election cycle. The Conservatives would have been hoping to use these elections to build on their momentum from the general election victory, Labour to mount a fightback under a new leader, the Liberal Democrats to show that their local roots remain strong. All are now denied the opportunity
There are also practical questions like what happens to councillors standing down – many of them will have plans – jobs to go to, moves, family – and won’t be able to sit for another year. What happens to their seats? What does that mean for local decision making legitimacy?
The fact that only 30% of people vote in local elections might tempt us to think this doesn’t much matter but these are huge issues. That’s not to say it’s the wrong decision – it’s clearly the right decisions – but it does underline how far Covid-19 will (indeed already does) impact every aspect of our lives.