Finally, some clarity on England’s local elections

Tara Azar, former Student Placement

Posted on the 5th February 2021

UK ministers have finally confirmed that local elections in England will go ahead on the 6th of May, after already being delayed in 2020 due to the pandemic.

An extra £31 million of central funding will go into ensuring that each polling station is effectively Covid-secure in England’s major round of elections – which include mayors, the London Assembly and Police and Crime Commissioners.

This decision has been made public today after the government has been pushed by groups including the Electoral Reform Society to set out running elections while the pandemic may still be with us. Over 100 elections have been held worldwide since coronavirus took hold last year, showing that with good planning it can be done.

After seeing elections still successfully taking place despite the pandemic in countries such as the United States, France and Italy, it was clear that voting didn’t have to be delayed for a second time.  Voters rightly want their say over roads, social care, bins and libraries after a long pause.

But it’s not all rosy. The announcement today is a long time coming. We’ve needed clarity for both voters and electoral administrators for a long time now – more importantly, we’ve needed a clear and transparent process to decide on any delay. The past few months have seen a stream of confusing reports and briefings on the elections, damaging planning and public trust in the process.

The Electoral Reform Society believes that the Welsh government is a good example for Westminster to bear in mind. Discussions over any delay have taken place in the open, in the Senedd and through legislation.

In Wales and Scotland, there has been far greater transparency, and open consultation across parties and civil society. Indeed, Wales’ local government minister Julie James MS accepted nearly all of a Senedd committee’s recent recommendations on improving democracy and transparency in the May elections.

However, in Westminster, decisions and conversations have largely been behind closed doors, stoking fears that a strategic delay in the elections could be used for the benefit of the governing party.

There are positives with this week’s announcement from UK ministers. The government has assured voters that polling stations will be in line with Covid-19 safety procedures, making it clear that everyone must wear face coverings inside the polling station, and outlining a range of measures such as including hand sanitiser, divider screens and asking voters to bring their own pen or pencil for sanitation purposes.

In addition, measures will be introduced to reduce the travel required for potential candidates standing for elected office. The Electoral Reform Society is welcoming the extra central funding for making polling stations Covid secure, and expanding access to proxy votes for those who can’t vote in person.

One row likely to grow is this: in-person leafletting by volunteers remains banned under England’s lockdown.

That means smaller parties – who rely on door-to-door campaigning more than paid leafletting services (which is still legal) will lose out. This is an issue of fairness we must all be aware of in the coming month or two.

For now, election officials will be glad of the clarity – and no doubt working hard to make these elections as open and accessible as possible. There are lessons we can already learn from the saga so far.

Tara Azar is a Communications Placement Student at the ERS from the University of Nottingham.

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