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The Government has announced that all the local elections due to take place on Thursday May 7th will be postponed for a year. Elections were due to take place for the Mayor of London, the Mayor of the West Midlands, the Mayor of Tees Valley, the Police and Crime Commissioners, and a large number of council seats for district councils, metropolitan boroughs, and unitary authorities.

They will now be held on Thursday May 6th 2021 – so will coincide with county council elections.

The decision is controversial but is not a complete shock. It followed a plea by the Electoral Commission yesterday to postpone the elections until the autumn. The Commission’s Chief Executive had sent the following letter to Chloe Smith MP, Minister for the Constitution and Devolution:

“In light of the current and emerging situation around Covid-19 in the UK, I wanted to write to set out the Commission’s concerns about the real risks to the successful delivery of the scheduled 7 May 2020 elections.

We have been in close contact with a range of key stakeholders across the electoral community – including the Association of Electoral Administrators, Solace, the Greater London Returning Officer, the Wales Electoral Coordination Board, and of course your officials – to assess the risks, and to identify and take forward appropriate mitigations to enable the delivery of the elections. While this work is continuing, it has already become clear that the risks are so significant as to raise serious concerns about the polls continuing to their current timetable.

Although polling day is not until 7 May, preparations for the elections are already well underway and indeed publication of notice of election – which marks the start of the formal timetable – will take place later this month. This means that a decision now needs to be taken, by Government and as appropriate by Parliament, whether to proceed with the scheduled 7 May polls.

So voters can cast their ballot, polling station venues need to be secured, set up, staffed and accessed; we already know that local authorities have concerns about their ability to ensure this, particularly at the same time as continuing to manage other key services in the current circumstances. It is also vital that voters are able to hear the positions of candidates, parties and campaigners before they cast their vote; however, many forms of campaigning may not be possible, leaving insufficient space for the arguments to be heard.

We also anticipate that as a result of the direct and indirect impacts of Covid-19, there will be significant numbers of registered electors who in practice will not have opportunity to vote, or feel inclined to vote. While increased access to post and proxy voting may provide a partial solution for some electors, it would create further and additional pressures and risks in other parts of the system.

Clearly any decisions to delay elections which are due is significant and would not normally be desirable; however, we are in unprecedented times. The risks to delivery that have been identified are such that we cannot be confident that voters will be able to participate in the polls safely and confidently, nor that campaigners and parties will be able to put their case to the electorate. We therefore call on the Government to take steps to provide early clarity to all those with an interest in the electoral process; and on the available information and position we recommend the Government now delay the 7 May polls until the autumn. In this context we are also mindful that the Chief Executives of local authorities and their staff across the country are necessarily focussed on the ongoing management of the impacts Covid-19 is having on their localities.

Similar impacts could also be expected to affect the effective delivery of by-elections during the intervening period, and we would hope that this could also be addressed at the same time by providing that these could also be deferred. Looking further ahead, there may also be a potential impact on annual canvass activity across the UK, and this is something that it will be important for Government to return to with us in due course.

The Commission stands ready to provide further advice and take or co-ordinate necessary actions, as may be of assistance to the Government in this matter.”

However, the Commission had been criticised on the grounds that there would be uncertainty over how serious the situation will be in the autumn and whether a further postponement would be proposed. Delaying for a full year at least has the merit of being decisive.

The Labour Party had backed a delay.

This does leave a complication for Council by-elections already scheduled for the coming weeks. It is also difficult for new authorities due to come into being, such as Northamptonshire. What about the councillors and Police and Crime Commissioners who thought they were standing down? What about Warwick District Council’s referendum where they were seeking approval for a huge Council Tax increase?

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