What is going on with England’s May elections?

Josiah Mortimer, former Head of Communications

Posted on the 21st January 2021

This past week we’ve seen a dizzying array of conflicting reports for the government’s plans for May’s polls, with Conservative party figures suggesting delays are likely, despite official advice that plans are unchanged but ‘under review’.

Last year’s English local elections were already delayed by a year due to the pandemic – so Ministers need to give clarity as soon as possible as to whether the public will be able to exercise their right to vote safely in May.

Electoral experts have warned that despite delaying elections for a longer time than many other countries, the UK government ‘still isn’t ready’ to hold polls under pandemic conditions.

Wales and Scotland are passing legislation on the issue, and having an open debate around any election delay. In Wales, a cross-party working group is regularly reporting on the state of plans and preparations for how to hold May’s Senedd elections safely. In England, it feels like the public are only getting hearsay through selective briefings to journalists. That’s no good for public trust, with fears that partisan interests could come into play when ministers are considered another delay.  

We all deserve openness and transparency over how any decision over a delay will be made. The current stream of confusing reports damages planning and public confidence in the process.

Ministers should set out plans for ensuring democracy can take place safely and securely and make clear when and how any decision over another delay will be made. Wales and Scotland’s contingency plans have allowed proper debate and scrutiny about how the elections can happen safely, and how a delay might work – giving everyone time and space to plan. We should expect the same respect for voters in England.

Elections are not a ‘nice to have’. They are fundamental to democracy and must be properly managed. And electoral administrators need to be properly resources.

May’s elections, which include delayed elections from 2020, will see a bumper set of votes with elections due to be held for English councils, police and crime commissioners, the London mayor, the London Assembly, regional mayors and local mayors as well as elections in Scotland and Wales. Local administrators need to resources to prepare properly.

Over 100 elections have taken place worldwide since the pandemic began, including by-elections in Scotland. With the vaccine now being rolled-out, we should be doing everything we can to make sure elections take place fairly and safely.

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