"Voter suppression" claim over leafleting ban ahead of Lancashire local elections

A row has broken out about whether in-person political campaigning should be permitted ahead of local elections due to take place across Lancashire in the spring.

Sunday, 31st January 2021, 5:58 pm
Updated Sunday, 31st January 2021, 6:04 pm

Liberal Democrats in Preston and South Ribble have condemned government guidance stating that activities such as door-to-door leafleting should not be happening during lockdown.

Local elections are scheduled for 6th May - although it is still not clear what form they will take or if they will ultimately go ahead.

Lancashire is due to vote in several district, parish and police and crime commissioner polls which were postponed last year because of the pandemic - as well as in elections for the county council that were already due in 2021.

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Preston City Council is one of the local authorities due to hold elections in May - Lib Dem group leader John Potter (left) wants to be able to deliver leaflets, but Labour council leader Matthew Brown agrees with government guidance that says it should not take place during lockdown

However, Chloe Smith, minister for constitution and devolution, last week wrote to the parliamentary parties panel to indicate that the government did not believe doorstep campaigning was compatible with current lockdown restrictions.

She said that it was “widely accepted that voters can continue to get campaigning information remotely”.

“In order to reduce transmission of Covid-19 infection, door-to-door campaigning at this point in time is therefore not considered essential or necessary activity,” said Ms. Smith, adding that further guidance would be provided in due course nearer the election date.

At a meeting of Preston City Council, Liberal Democrat group leader - and Preston West county councillor - John Potter said the advice was tantamount to “voter suppression”.

“Without any public health or scientific evidence, the Conservative government [has] effectively banned political campaigning, unless you are a candidate with vast amounts of funding to pay for delivery [of materials].

“No other form of delivery has been banned - charity bags, pizza leaflets, church newsletters, estate agent adverts. The only thing that has been banned is leaflets of a political nature.

“If it’s not safe enough to campaign, how can it be safe enough to have an election?” asked Cllr Potter, who also sits on Lancashire County Council.

Labour city council leader Matthew Brown accepted that the situation was “not perfect”. However, he said that his party had concluded that it must “prioritise the health of our activists and the community above campaigning”.

“Where I do agree with you is that if people or parties can afford to deliver literature, it's unfair on parties that [can’t] do.

“But the reality is that social mixing is something that contributes to coronavirus spreading, it puts people at risk and I think all parties - because I know [the Lib Dems] have been delivering leaflets at some points - should adhere to that.

“The government should make it fair, so political parties are actually given budgets, potentially, to deliver literature through the post,” said Cllr Brown, who also said more use could be made of social media and phone campaigning.

The city’s Conservative group leader, Sue Whittam, said she fully agreed with the Labour position, adding: “But there are some people who abide by the rules and some people who break them.”

South Ribble Borough Council’s Lib Dem group leader David Howarth said he has had to pay £400 for a delivery service to distribute 6,000 leaflets for his county council election campaign because of the government guidance.

“We have been spiked in the run-up to an election,” he said.

The national party’s guidance on the issue states that volunteer activists should not currently be delivering "political election leaflets". However, it adds that they can distribute "non-political support literature" - providing information on local issues such as the availability of food banks - so long as they take Covid precautions.

As the Local Democracy Reporting Service revealed earlier this month, all of Lancashire’s returning officers - the council chiefs in charge of overseeing the election process in their areas - have written to the government calling for the local votes to be postponed until at least the autumn or, if they do go ahead in May, for them to be an all-postal ballot.

However, in her letter, Chloe Smith said that it was right that a “high bar” had been set for any further postponement of those elections which will be a year overdue by May.

She added: “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.”

In Central Lancashire, the district councils in Preston and Chorley were both due to vote last year and this - with the latter having been set for an all-out election last May after boundary changes and a reduction in the total number of councillors on the authority. South Ribble Borough Council elects every four years and is not due to do so again until 2023.

However, the whole of Lancashire is scheduled to take part in elections to County Hall this year and in a vote for the next police and crime commissioner.