Ministers have ruled Devon County Council must go to the polls on Thursday 6 May, despite the country being in the midst of a deadly pandemic.
The government directive runs directly counter to its lockdown policies, which have seen the closure of schools and many businesses.
“We must ensure a level playing field for those standing for election, protect the integrity of our elections, and help voters to have confidence in these elections, which are important civic events despite the challenging circumstances.”
Those are the words of the minister of state for constitution and devolution, Chloe Smith. She wrote to councils last month, to inform candidates in the May elections that ‘door-to-door’ campaigning would not be allowed due to the risks of spreading coronavirus.
So is there really a “level playing field” in this election for smaller parties and independent candidates, given that leafleting and door-knocking is banned; or is this just more of the contradictory rhetoric that we have come to expect from this government?
In the weeks preceding Ms Smith’s letter, ministers were urged by almost every stakeholder involved in planning the local elections, to defer them on health grounds. Councils across England are deeply concerned about how they can be run safely, how they will manage the count and where they will have polling stations, given that many school buildings may be unavailable because of the pandemic.
But with popularity polls steadily climbing in the Conservatives’ favour due to the heroic efforts of the NHS on the Covid-19 vaccination programme, ministers confirmed on 5 February that the elections on 6 May will definitely go ahead.
A day after this announcement, I was tagged in a tweet from a local resident annoyed at receiving what she says is ‘misleading’ election material received through the post from the Conservative Party. The leaflet is accompanied by an application form for a postal vote.
So the Conservative campaign has started already.
For those of us who are independent candidates, the ban on leafleting in particular was a body blow, as it will also have been to the smaller parties.
As independents, we are accustomed to being the underdog. In fact, I enjoy being the underdog. Taking on the big, vested interests of the Conservative Party (which often seem to match the interests of their major donors), on behalf of residents in my ward, has always been my raison d’être.
But even before candidates were banned from leafleting and door-knocking, the rules were stacked against independents, aside from the obvious issues relating to party support, brand recognition and funding.
Each election candidate is held to strict spending limits by the Electoral Commission. The difference is that in addition to individual spending limits, the most lavishly-funded party of all, the Conservative Party, has a vast central budget that they’re also permitted to use. This means that almost all the online advertising and letters by post are organised via Conservative central office. It’s about the brand rather than the candidate, who only gets a cursory mention.
Even if independents did have the ability to match that spend, they wouldn’t be allowed to spend it, which means fundraising is also pointless. My total allowable spend is about £1500, which is perfectly reasonable in a normal year. This year, however, if I wanted to get a leaflet to the six thousand or so properties in my ward via a courier or Royal Mail during the election period, it would not be possible without breaching Electoral Commission rules.
So when ministers say candidates are permitted to use distribution companies, they are perfectly well aware that any leaflet sent out by Royal Mail or a courier would smash any spend allowable by the electoral commission for an independent candidate.
I have always relied on hard work and shoe-leather: weeks of pounding the streets leafleting and door-knocking prior to an election. Getting out there and talking to and listening to people works. Every time. Politics is about building relationships and building trust. I also pick up on issues of concern and find out how people are feeling on a wide range of subjects. It is during election periods that I get a really strong feel for how people are thinking about important issues, and that influences how I represent people in the subsequent four-year term.
It has never been more obvious than it is now that the existing rules are deeply unfair. Starkly exposed by the ban on door-to-door campaigning, which leaves me, rather paradoxically, unable to get a company to distribute our leaflets during the election period, because of a risk of contravening Electoral Commission spending limits; AND unable to match the budget of the biggest and most generously funded party – the Conservative Party ‒ which means I cannot compete online either.
The other dilemma is how we encourage people to vote. Ministers appear not to care that they are putting lives at risk by holding elections in May, but as candidates, we would usually now be at the stage of urging people to visit polling stations.
So, what does holding the elections in the middle of a pandemic, but banning door-to-door campaigning really mean for democracy?
Well, I hope I am wrong, but I think it means that unless a new independent candidate already has a significant public profile, it is going to be almost impossible for them to be elected. It will mean that the Tories’ ability to flood social media and our letterboxes with promo leaflets may go virtually unchallenged, allowing misleading and heavily biased themes to flourish.
And it will mean that those of us with existing seats – even councillors like me with a significant profile – will have to use all our ingenuity, all our determination and all our passion, to retain our seats in the face of what appears to be an election that has been arranged to benefit the Conservative Party.
Low turnouts always benefit the party in power. The Conservatives have a very large majority on Devon County Council. If you are not already registered, please register to vote here: www.gov.uk/register-to-vote . You will need to make a separate request for a postal vote so you can vote safely, by ringing EDDC Electoral Services on 01395 517402.
So to return to my original concern, these elections are very far indeed from a level playing field.
Without doubt the Conservatives have ensured they hold all the cards in this election. If this was happening in another country, our own government might describe it as ‘election interference’ or ‘vote rigging’ ….
SO … PLEASE:
- 1. Register to vote
- 2. Order your postal vote
- 3. Research your local candidates.
Claire Wright is a Devon County Councillor,Independent, representing Otter Valley Ward.