The Labour Party has urged the government today to ensure that the bumper set of local, mayoral and other elections scheduled to take place in May can go ahead despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Conservative MP Steve Brine said this week that the elections this year will “almost certainly” be postponed due to Covid-19, as he said it was “deeply dangerous” and “deeply irresponsible” for activists to be out campaigning.
Already some are “out delivering leaflets – they’re opening gates, touching letterboxes, putting bits of papers through doors”, the Winchester MP said, and “if you push the election back it pushes back that temptation”.
Council leaders have urged the government to decide “as soon as possible” whether the elections will be going ahead. The May 6th date is set in law but so far Boris Johnson has said that this will be “kept under review”.
Commenting on the situation today, Keir Starmer’s spokesperson pointed out that countries across the world have held elections during this pandemic, including the US presidential election, which saw a rise in postal votes.
The spokesperson said: “Countries across the world have held elections during this pandemic and it’s surprising that the government is only now realising that it may not be able to hold them in May. It’s not like these elections weren’t known.”
Asked whether the Labour leader would support a delay, he replied: “Ultimately this is in the hands of the government, and if they take the decision we will respect that, but the decision to delay is a political one and a failure of proper preparedness.”
Labour backbencher Andrew Gwynne, who served as the local government spokesperson under the last leadership, has accused the government of using coronavirus as an excuse to implement a delay in order to “get a vaccine bump” in the polls.
The issue was addressed by Cabinet Office minister Chloe Smith in the House of Commons this afternoon. She said the government hoped to go ahead with the elections but “we are keeping this position under review”.
The minister added that any change to the date of the elections would “require very careful consideration”, including by MPs, and that “there should be a high bar for this delay” as people “have a right to be heard”.
Labour’s Cat Smith, as shadow Cabinet Office minister responsible for voter engagement, in response described it as “deeply disappointing” that there was little “clarity on how these polls will be Covid-secure”.
The opposition frontbencher said: “Clarity is urgently needed by local councils, electoral staff, candidates, campaigners and of course the public. It is yet another example of the Conservative government being too slow to act.”
Making the point that other countries have held elections, Smith added: “Ministers have had many months to make the necessary changes to protect our democratic process. Instead they are treating these elections like business as usual.”
Labour has called for safer voting measures to be introduced, such as voting over multiple days and all-postal ballots. It is expected that postal votes will need to feature heavily in any contests held during Covid.
Cat Smith demanded that the elections are not postponed “in an irresponsible, last-minute U-turn”, as this would cause “wasted” spending on preparations. “Councils cannot afford to be caught on the hoof,” she said.
Government minister Chloe Smith encouraged anyone concerned about in-person voting to apply for a postal vote and said she had considered the case for all-postal ballots but ultimately rejected it in order to give people choice.
Local elections due to be held in 2020 were delayed due to Covid-19. With the contests pushed back, the May 2021 polling day will now cover 184 councils, 13 directly-elected mayors and 40 police and crime commissioners.
There will also be contests for the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, but these are the responsibilities of those devolved administrations rather than of the UK government. London Assembly elections from last year will take place, too.