Were the government right to suspend local elections for a year?

Amidst the coronavirus crisis, the Devolution and Local Government Network’s @ElliotBidgood analyses the government’s decision to delay local elections to 2021

The current coronavirus pandemic is forcing difficult decisions on governments across the world and drastic changes to life in a variety of spheres. Just one of these has been the decision taken by the UK government to delay upcoming local elections - due to be held in May for 118 English local councils, eight directly-elected mayors and 40 Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) in England and Wales – until May 2021. 

The decision to suspend has been broadly welcomed - pressure had been building on the government from Labour and other opposition parties, and the decision followed formal guidance from the Electoral Commission to postpone. However, it is notable that the Commission’s advice had been to delay only to Autumn 2020 and it is important to query the rationale behind this decision and its implications for local government.

The Commission’s letter to the government dwelled on the ability of councils to run polling stations while also managing other core services in a time of emergency, and do so in a climate where public gatherings of any kind are being discouraged. Administrative disfunction and public concern about the health risks could also have impacted turnout, already notoriously low in British local elections (France has seen a reported drop in turnout after pressing ahead with March local elections). Some US states are pushing back their current presidential primaries to May or June, with Ohio’s governor commenting “in-person voting does not conform and cannot conform with [US Centre for Disease Control] guidelines” on social distancing.

Our own government’s specific decision to delay until 2021 may be motivated by concerns about a potential “second wave” later in 2020, a feature of some historical outbreaks that is thought to be heavily influencing other aspects of the government’s policy response to coronavirus. It may also be an attempt to reduce the complexity and cost of holding two rounds of elections less than a year apart – though it is hard to estimate, the LSE-based Democratic Audit suggested a round of local elections carries an average cost to the public purse of at least £45m, but combining elections tends to reduce the price tag for councils (already hard-hit by a decade of austerity). 

However, Democratic Audit’s Dr Alistair Clark has also warned that “holding different rounds of elections at the same time leads to lower performance”. Many voters will be expected to express informed preferences on more candidates and offices, voting for both district and county councillors at the same time as their PCC for example, which impacts upon local democracy. Many PCCs and councillors will have been planning to retire in May and by-elections may now be required in seats with present vacancies, including two county PCC offices (a ‘six-month rule’ in the law had been relieving the need for these by-elections as scheduled elections were upcoming, Andrew Teale of Britain Elects noted). The decision has also created huge uncertainty in Northamptonshire and Buckinghamshire, due to hold inaugural elections after reorganising with unitary authorities. And while nationally the delay might carry electoral incentives for either one of the main parties – Labour’s internal research had suggested the party faced a difficult night outside of Sadiq Khan’s London, while the Conservatives may have feared a backlash over Boris Johnson’s handling of the coronavirus crisis – it is not in the interests of the public for politicians to avoid accountability.

It is worth considering whether postal or even Estonian-style electronic voting could be a remedy for countries worried about the health risks of in-person elections. Between 2000 and 2004, dozens of local authorities piloted all-postal voting, leading to reported increases in turnout. In the US state of Oregon, all ballots have been cast by post since 1998. However, this would be a major administrative shift for stretched councils to undertake in crisis conditions. And we must also remember that in a truly strong and free society, voting itself is not the only democratic act – the Electoral Commission’s recommendation to delay stressed that constraints on campaigning meant voters would not have the chance to make informed decisions, something that would hold regardless of how voting is organised.

These are not easy decisions for societies to make, and the government’s decision to accept some kind of delay to the 2020 local elections was prudent. But it is important for the health of municipal democracy that the government clarify their thinking behind the length of the delay, and fully support frontline councils doing the best they can to battle coronavirus with strained capacity and potentially unclear local democratic mandates.

 

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