England & Wales Covid-19, Democracy, devolution and governance

Will May be a missed chance?

Photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash

Every elector in England should have a vote in May with the elections scheduled for 2021 and those deferred from 2020. In the midst of a pandemic is this wise, safe or fair? Local government certainly has its doubts.

At LGIU, we recently surveyed chief executives, leaders and democratic service heads in every council in England. Nine out of ten were concerned about their ability to hold elections safely and thought it would be better to delay, with autumn the preferred alternative.

They had doubts about being able to get enough staff, to keep those staff safe, to find venues for polling stations and to maintain social distancing at counts while ensuring transparency. They also worried about potentially disenfranchising people who will not have been vaccinated by then and who may be concerned about coming out to vote – not to mention those self-isolating or quarantined. And, of course, there’s the question of who is going to cover the additional expense.

Robert Jenrick is said to be sympathetic to this view, but the Prime Minister is set on carrying on and at the time of writing the Government’s position is that elections should go ahead. Of course, it is entirely possible that by the time you are reading this the position may have changed and the elections have been deferred.

One of my colleagues likened it to Schrödinger’s cat – ‘the election both is and isn’t happening until it either has or hasn’t’, he opined sagely, if opaquely, ‘meanwhile we all keep buying expensive cat food.’

I’m not sure about that but I am sure that whether the Government’s U-turn has already happened or is still to come, we have missed an opportunity to make an early and clear decision and councils will already have spent time and money they cannot afford or recover on preparing for something while not being certain they will happen. That is something the sector could do without right now.

The other missed opportunity was last year, when we could have put in place measures to be able to run elections safely. That can and should happen now.

It is possible, as many countries have shown, to run elections securely in a pandemic. But in order to do this, we should ensure polling staff are prioritised for vaccination, make sure sufficient PPE is available, ramp up postal voting, or even enable all postal ballots (as they did in Bavaria), or early voting (as they did in Australia) and allow electronic signatures on nomination forms. All of which takes money and some of which requires primary legislation.

But if we had done those things last year we wouldn’t need to be talking about postponing elections this year. We shouldn’t pretend there is no democratic cost to that.

Some councillors will have gone five years without facing elections. New unitaries like Buckinghamshire, North Northamptonshire and West Northamptonshire will not have had elections and metro mayors like Andy Street and Andy Burnham have had an extension to their elected terms.

These elections are important. They will be treated as a poll on the Government’s handling of coronavirus, and while there will no doubt be an element of that, we should not forget that their substantive result will be the election of local leaders who will be making important decisions about how we rebuild post-pandemic.

Democracy is not just about elections but they are a vital foundation to it. It is essential people have confidence in them. It would only take a few polling stations unable to open to undermine the integrity of the whole process. As one council leader told us: ‘It takes years to repair the damage to democracy’ when elections don’t go well’.

Postponing elections is regrettable, but it is the right choice, not because they don’t matter, but precisely because they matter so much.

Jonathan Carr-West is Chief Executive of LGIU.

This article was first published in The Municipal Journal.

Full research can be found in our publication Free, fair and safe.

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