Polls open in 100 Days – or will they?

By Phil Briscoe

As the pandemic unfolded in 2020, we had to forsake many of our usual activities and pastimes, and voting was no exception. The scheduled bumper crop of elections for councils, mayors and police and crime commissioners was postponed for a year. But that was when we all believed normality would return in just a few months, if not weeks!

Since then, we have all spent more time talking about lockdowns than leaflets, campaigning has been eclipsed by cases, and by-elections no longer happen in the world of daily briefings.

So now, just 100 days from a super-bumper round of elections across the country, what should we expect? Will the government put on a brave face and push ahead with the elections, or will we see elections postponed for a second time?

Postponing elections is never done lightly and pre-COVID, it had only happened once since the Second World War – in 2001, when travel restrictions prompted by the foot and mouth disease saw the elections postponed by just one month.

The government line has been bullish recently – that the elections will take place, and Cabinet Office Minister Chloe Smith MP has been keen to reassure everyone that they are working with electoral and public health officials to enable people to participate safely and to ensure polling stations are COVID-secure.

However, local government voices are increasingly concerned about the prospect of elections taking place. Yesterday, a poll published by the Local Government Information Unit found that 94% of Council Leaders, Chief Executives and democratic services officers felt concerned about the elections proceeding.

What do the 2021 elections look like?

Combining two years of elections in May means this is not just another council election but the closest we will get to a mid-term. Over 45 million voters will get the chance to elect the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Parliament, the London Assembly, 13 directly elected mayors (including London, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands), 40 police and crime commissioners, and over 5,000 councillors at district, metropolitan county levels. This number excludes the dozens of council by-elections that are waiting to be run and all the parish and town council elections that are scheduled for the same day.  

Politically, the Conservatives may expect a bumpier performance in May than a delayed autumn poll that could follow a successful vaccination programme and a country bouncing back from COVID. Likewise, Sir Keir Starmer may have his sights set on May as an opportunity to punish the government and inflict electoral damage. But the decision to proceed or delay is not just a political one this year.

Why not just postpone the elections again?

The vaccination programme is gathering pace and looks to be on track to exceed the targets set at the beginning of the year, so the government will be able to claim that all priority vulnerable groups will have been vaccinated before the May elections. Indeed, on current rates, it is possible that more than half of the UK population could have received at least one vaccination dose by polling day, so is a further delay really necessary?

Then there is the question of the future and what else could be round the corner. As more strains and variants are identified, what happens to the effectiveness of a vaccination and what risks does another winter bring?

Another justification for elections in May is to keep the democratic process alive. Many elected councillors are waiting to retire or stand-down and a further delay may just trigger more resignations and even more empty chairs in council chambers across the country. Some will also cry democratic deficit that terms in office have been extended and voters have not had a chance to elect their local leaders.

Perhaps most importantly for Boris Johnson is the perception of what a delayed election means. Hopes of easing lockdown and getting children back to school in February will be dealt a serious blow if elections planned for May are now cancelled. Public hopes of economic recovery and summer holidays could be shattered if the message was that May is still too early for business as usual.

Is another delay really necessary?

Then there are practical campaign reasons that support further delays – the campaign will mobilise thousands of candidates and campaigners to deliver leaflets, knock on doors, talk to voters and ultimately drive millions of people to queue up with strangers at polling stations. In a normal year this requires a Herculean effort, but this year it is likely many people will avoid any doorstep engagement, election leaflets will go unread (more so than usual) and turnout could plummet.

Logistically, elections do not just happen but rely on councils to manage the registration and nomination process and the oversee polling day itself with an army of polling station staff and counters to declare the actual results. Set against the backdrop of coronavirus, these local councils are already under pressure supporting testing and vaccination centres, providing support networks for the vulnerable and plugging financial black holes that threaten to engulf some local services and authorities. Many of those local council staff will justifiably ask if their time is best spent working on an election when the country is in the middle of a crisis.

We may have to wait a little longer…

If you think that we are now running out of time to postpone the elections again, then think again. Last year, the government took the decision to delay the poll on Friday 13th March, following a proposal from the electoral Commission a day earlier.  

On that basis, we could still be 45 days away from a decision to postpone the elections, and it seems unlikely that any change of direction would be announced ahead of the mid-February review of lockdown controls that fits with the school half-term break.

What is clear is that pressure to delay the elections will increase in the next few weeks and a further delay seems hard for the government to resist. However, this year it is more likely to be a postponement for several months, possibly until September. Another year-long delay would see a third round of elections on the same day in 2022, including councils in London and Northern Ireland, and may electors having to juggle three, four or even five different ballot papers.

What is clear is that should the elections take place in May, campaigners are likely to find little appetite for political point-scoring from an electorate more focused on survival (personal, economic and social) than bin collections and potholes. More than ever before, the answer from many voters may well be “Not today, thank you!”