Last month we looked at the measures the government is proposing to ensure that this year’s local elections, postponed for a year due to the pandemic, go as planned in May.
These included increased campaign costs and proposals for “emergency proxy voting” for those forced to self-isolate.
However, after the nation has stalled again, local government officials are again concerned about the prospect of delays and have asked ministers to clarify whether or not the elections will take place. So what’s up?
For its part, the government continues to insist that it will be possible, using the protective measures it has introduced, to hold “covid-safe” elections on a scheduled basis. According to the cabinet:
“The primary legislation provides that the elections will take place in May 2021. We continue to work closely with the electoral community and public health authorities to resolve challenges and ensure that everyone can vote in a safe and secure manner. Measures are planned to support short-term coordination. The guidelines will be published well in advance of the surveys and this matter will be further examined. ”
In Whitehall, the difficulty lies less with election day itself than with the wider campaign period. Unless the government is able to relax lockdown restrictions as soon as planned, it may remain illegal for activists to conduct personal campaigns. And when different parts of the country descend through the plains at different speeds, there is a risk of a regionally unequal democratic process.
In addition, there are legislative challenges for further postponement. The new election date is anchored in legislation and the power to postpone it under the Coronavirus Act has expired. So any delay would require new primary legislation, which – in addition to the need to properly inform election administrators – sets its own deadlines for the decision window.
(And that’s before we get to the decentralized administrations. Each of them has the power to postpone their own elections, but in Wales the timing of the election set by the Police & Crime Commissioner is reserved for Westminster. Postponing that would also be a new one Require primary legislation, but this process cannot begin until the Welsh Government has at least decided to vote in the Welsh Parliament.)
Despite all this upward movement, the matter is still under investigation by the government and a delay has not been ruled out. Nor is there any evidence that Westminster is considering any options that are being considered by the Scottish government, including things like a postal election.
The consensus between Whitehall figures and conservatives in local government seems to be that it may not be very long before the elections are postponed – maybe not until June, when the NHS is under that much less pressure and the vaccine rollout continues is advanced.