By Oliver Gibson –
It is difficult to remember now, after the madness and confusion of last year, that the local elections in Kirklees that were meant to take place never actually happened.
The local elections originally scheduled for 118 councils across England were of course postponed by the Government in early March of 2020 in order to ‘mitigate’ the spread of COVID-19. By that time, just 800 cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed in the UK, but it was feared that the virus could spread exponentially if unobstructed.
Almost one year on, over 3,700,000 cases have been confirmed in Britain, along with over 100,000 deaths. While the new year’s peak has been whittled down since the 7th of January, the number of daily cases in the last month have been consistently higher than any point during the first or second lockdowns, causing some to question whether or not the local elections should be postponed again.
What was originally scheduled?
As a Metropolitan Borough Council, Kirklees elects one-third of its councillors every year for three years, with no election taking place on the fourth year. With a total of 69 councillors, that means that 23 would have been up for election last year had COVID not got in the way.
As part of West Yorkshire, Kirklees would have also taken part in two further elections. Firstly, West Yorkshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner was up for re-election, in what would have been our third election of that kind.
Secondly, West Yorkshire was also set to elect its first-ever Mayor. This new office was created just a year ago in a bespoke devolution deal under the March 2020 budget after many years of negotiations between the governments of David Cameron, Theresa May and finally Boris Johnson.
After 2024, our Mayor will assume a similar role to that of Andy Burnham, Mayor of Greater Manchester, when the office will absorb the powers of the Police and Crime Commissioner – making whoever takes the office West Yorkshire’s highest-profile politician and most senior representative.
What is currently scheduled to happen? And will it be COVID safe?
Boris Johnson recently confirmed to the House of Commons that the Government intends for the local elections to take place this May, while this remains ‘under review’ for the time being. Should the lockdown be lifted in March, this would leave enough time to open polling stations to allow for in-person as well as postal voting, though it could put a strain on local services if an extraordinary influx of postal ballots had to be processed.
Local elections generally have a low turnout in the UK, with only a third of Britons choosing to cast their votes in them according to the BBC. The possible reasons for this boil down to the lack of focus from the press, strange election cycles and the smaller role played by Councillors than MPs. If the turnout remained low, then the risk of casting a ballot for those who do vote would logically be lower in suit.
In an email to KLTV, Kirklees Council confirmed their intention to ‘ensure polling stations are as safe as possible for voters and staff with all appropriate safety measures in place’ so that the local, Mayoral and PCC elections can take place without ‘spread of COVID-19’.
Despite the pandemic, a number of countries around the world did opt to run elections as planned. The most notable example of this was conducted in the United States, where Governors, Senators and Congressmen were elected alongside the new President, Joe Biden. While the Presidential Election went less smoothly than some of the elections in America’s history, to put it lightly, this was not strictly just down to the Coronavirus – though there was much talk about ‘postal ballot fraud’ in the run-up to and after the election. The United States Congress confirmed Biden and Harris’ victory earlier this month, however.
It is doubtful that such problems would arise in the UK following a set of local elections, though the example of the United States nevertheless demonstrates that elections can be operated during the pandemic and also that elections, along with many types of work, can be done from home.
Who’s asking for them to be postponed?
Senior council figures across England are backing a further postponement to the local elections that are currently scheduled to happen this year. According to research conducted by the Local Government Information Unit (LGIU), ‘only 11%’ of the officials orchestrating the elections believe that the elections should take place in May.
According to the LGIU, a ‘majority of council officials are overwhelmingly concerned’ over the prospect of holding the local elections in May without any kind of further postponement. ‘69%’ of these officials support the elections being postponed to the Autumn.
The LGIU found that respondents to its survey ‘felt that the most helpful thing [the Government] could do to make the elections free, fair and safe would be to delay them to a further date, provide additional ring-fenced funding and support postal voting’.
They stressed the risk that if the elections were not postponed, ‘millions’ who ‘do not feel safe going to the polls’ could be ‘effectively disenfranchised’. Indeed, if the spread of the Coronavirus remained at its current rate then the risk to health and public confidence could be severe, though it currently appears that the spread is gradually decreasing and has been doing so since mid-January.
Nevertheless, the line taken by the LGIU does shine a light on the seriousness of the issue faced by election officials and by the Government. If the elections were to be delayed again, this could cheapen the theoretical worth of local elections and local government in general. It could also be embarrassing for the Government to backtrack on their commitment to holding the elections in May. However, if the elections were to go ahead un-postponed, then these local officials could be placed under a high strain, making the electoral process less efficient and increasing the scope for error.
Registering to vote
The deadline to register to vote in the local elections, provided they go ahead in May, is the 19th of April. It is vital for all of those who wish to participate in those elections to register and it is also important to note that:
People who wish to vote by post need to register to do so if they haven’t already.
It is advisable to register for this as soon as possible in order to ensure that Kirklees Council is able to process the relevant documents.
If you registered to vote by post specifically for the 2019 general election that does not mean that you will be registered to vote in these elections. However, if you are registered to vote by post in all elections then this is not a concern.
Your vote does matter. No matter which way you vote, Kirklees is not totally dominated by any one party and local elections have been won by Labour, the Conservatives and by the Liberal Democrats in the past – and it is ultimately the case that higher turnout in these elections will make local government more accountable and more representative to us the people of Kirklees.