I don’t think there is any choice. The May local elections must be delayed. Until the autumn. I don’t want this. Elections refresh councils. Clear out ineffective councillors. Replace them with effective councillors. That’s the theory anyway.
All Shropshire parish and town councils and Shropshire Council were due for renewal on 6 May. I was looking forward to it. Elections are a lot of work for most councillors and wannabe councillors. But there is no doubt that most of our councils need refreshing.
Our dithering government has yet to make a decision. It has banned political leafletting but has yet to make an announcement whether local elections will be held. We need that announcement now.
Covid-19 is working against local democracy. It’s unlikely to be safe to hold elections until the Autumn. That’s the time when I hope many councillors in post will retire or get dismissed by the electorate. At the last full Shropshire Council meeting, one Conservative councillor voted against his party and tried to get his voted altered. Reversal would be illegal and the request was refused. Another senior Tory voted against his party’s motion. Rebellion or confusion? There are councillors who are recognisable only by their silence.
Councillors and councils get too comfortable if they don’t face regular challenges and are forced to justify their actions, even inactions, before the electorate. Too many go native and see their job as greasing the wheels of the system rather than challenging it. Fresh blood is needed. People who don’t fit the mould. People who want to challenge the status quo. Councillors emboldened to challenge clerks and officers by new or renewed support from the electorate.
But there is no way that elections can be held in three months’ time unless the government is prepared to invest tens of millions in Covid in secure polling stations and counting centres. It will need to staff them at a time when staff and volunteers are stretched supporting the vaccination programme. Ballot papers will need to be stored securely before counting to ensure they are Covid free. Polling stations will need to be found as there can be no assumption that previously used buildings are available while the epidemic continues.
Covid, much more than sesonal flu, spreads by aerosol droplets. Voters will have to wear masks but will the government impose improved mask standards as are now being considered for London transport? Going to vote and becoming ill is never going to promote the democratic ideal.
It is theoretically possible that all over 18s could have a first jab by the beginning of May. But there are so many variables – vaccination supply, maintaining a prolonged 12×7 vaccination operation, take up of vaccination offers, new Covid variants and more – relying on this would be a high stakes gamble.
Across England, there will be votes for police and crime commissioners, the London Mayor, the London Assembly, regional mayors and local mayors in May. These include elections delayed from May 2020 due to the epidemic.
These elections cannot be conducted by postal vote only as that will require primary legislation. There is no parliamentary time available for this. It is also uncertain that MPs would approve a such a major change in the way we vote.
Our democracy is getting tired in Shropshire. We need renewal at every level of democracy in Shropshire. It is time it is renewed local democracy to get a spring into its step but that renewal must wait until the fall. I wish it were not so.