As the nation staggers towards 2021, the forecast for next year looks somewhat v-shaped. The immediate aftermath of Christmas looks set to be dominated by another national lockdown (or whatever ‘Tier 4’ is). But after that, the vaccination programme holds out hope of a return to something like the old normal by the summer.
Which raises the question of what to do about the local elections, which are currently scheduled for May.
They have already been delayed once already, and both the Scottish and Welsh governments are making plans that include the power to delay their own elections yet again in the event that the public situation is not where we might want it to be when the day arrives.
The Government have taken a different approach, and no plans are being laid to prepare for a delay to the polls. Instead, ministers are taking practical steps to ensure that they can be conducted as safely as possible.
For starters, although practical and security considerations militated against an all-postal election, there is still for the moment a postal ballot for everyone who wants one. This will change if and when the mooted Electoral Integrity Bill hits the statute book and tightens up the relevant rules, but for now it is simple enough to get one and the parties, as well as local authorities, can and likely will run campaigns to make sure their voters are fully aware of this.
To make that slightly easier, the Government has also uprated local election expenses for the first time since 2014, lifting them to £806 per constituency (up from £740) and 7p per elector (up from 6p). This will give candidates a bit more to invest in online, postal, or other Covid-secure campaigning. In a recent written statement Chloe Smith, the Constitution Minister, acknowledged the pandemic as a reason for doing this now:
“The Government is also mindful that the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic may result in a greater emphasis on postal and digital campaigning ahead of May’s elections; this adds to the case for limits to be updated and uprated.”
Ministers are apparently looking at supplementing all of this this with provisions for ’emergency proxy voting’, in the event that someone who had intended to vote in person needs to self-isolate – this could apparently be done through secondary legislation – and by working to make sure that polling stations are Covid-secure.
This reluctance to delay the elections a second time is understandable. But given the obvious risk that face-to-face campaigning poses (especially to older voters and activists), there will likely be an electoral penalty to be paid if the worst happens and the Government has not left itself the means to postpone the polls. CCHQ must hope that this all-chips-on-May approach is a justified vote of confidence in the vaccination programme.