There has been widespread concern that the bumper crop of local elections due to take place on May 6th might be postponed due to the pandemic. Just over a week ago, a survey, by the Local Government Information Unit, was released. Of more than 350 chief executives and other council officials surveyed, only 11 per cent favoured proceeding as planned. 69 per cent backed postponement to the autumn; 14 per cent backed a shorter delay to the summer; and six per cent backed delaying until beyond the autumn. Boris Johnson has stated he wishes to go ahead “if we possibly can” – which still left some room for uncertainty.

But now a more encouraging signal has emerged. Amanda Milling, the Conservative Party Chairman, has written to Conservative councillors, Police and Crime Commissioners, MPs, and association chairmen, setting out practical arrangements to proceed with the campaign. It covers what campaigning is already allowed. But it also looks forward to more being possible, as lockdown rules are eased. Milling says:

“The Party anticipates that permitted activity will open-up as we get closer to the election period, reflecting the broader expected changes to Covid restrictions as vaccines are rolled out.”

At present, the Government’s guidance is that “door to door canvassing or leafleting by individual political party activists” would not be in line with the current restrictions. The Lib Dems have been criticised for a rather different interpretation.

Phone canvassing is being encouraged, with prizes offered – “to encourage members and activists to call thousands of voters across the country from the comfort of their sittings rooms.” All you need to “access Connect Calling” is a “VoteSource account.” There are great advantages to canvassing in this way even under normal circumstances. It is much quicker than knocking on doors. The problem is that not all phone numbers are available – especially with the decline in landlines. But then we should get cracking with those during February and March, with the hope and anticipation of being able to get hold of the rest of the electorate via their doorsteps in April.

Milling’s letter also notes that “social media advertising, email campaigns and single-issue online campaigns are all effective tools to reach voters remotely.” Email bulletins are a very efficient way to communicate – not just for the candidate but also for the voter wishing to reply. The problem is that the EU’s cumbersome General Data Protection Regulation requires the candidate to show the voter has specifically asked to be communicated with. With knocking on the door, phoning them, or posting a letter, the presumption is that this is permitted unless the elector has specified otherwise. But with email it is not enough to let them “opt out”. A huge fine is threatened unless they can be proven to have “opted in”. It would help the cause of local democracy if the GDPR rules were eased. This is not something that Milling covers in her missive.

Postal voting will be particularly important. Milling says:

“We expect more people to be voting by post this year, using Royal Mail for a postal vote drive is possible well ahead of time.”

The letter refers to “discussions with other political parties” on “how the nominations process could be improved.” Lord Hayward, a Conservative peer, Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town, a Labour peeress and Lord Rennard, a Lib Dem, have called for an exemption for candidates from registered political parties from the requirement to collect ten signatures from their nomination papers. It sounds as though they may get their way.

Milling concludes with the upbeat message that the outdoor campaigning, when it gets under way, can be made “all the better for being short, sharp and cheerful.”

The letter is reproduced below: