Monday, 11 January 2021

To vote or not to vote


Last week, the English government declared that it fully intends to proceed with local and mayoral elections in May despite the pandemic, and categorically ruled out moving to an all-postal election. Based on the government’s record to date, the most reasonable assumption to draw from this is that the elections will be postponed and that all votes will be cast by postal ballot – whatever they rule out categorically one week usually becomes firm policy the next. There is, of course, a knock-on effect for the devolved administrations in Cardiff and Edinburgh: for either of them to go ahead if England delays, or to delay if England goes ahead will be spun against those administrations for the political ends of the English Conservative Party. That party seems to have no firm view on whether postponing is, in itself, right or wrong, only that Wales and Scotland must follow England.

In Scotland, on the other hand, the unionist parties are desperately keen to postpone if they can, given that the SNP are on course for another landslide win. In the first place, their one remaining hope of stopping the SNP’s progress seems to be the belief that, if they can only delay a while, ‘something’ might turn up. On such vague hopes their wish to preserve the union now rests. But in the second place, if they argue that it is entirely ‘safe’ to hold elections, they will struggle to argue that holding a subsequent referendum (by which time the pandemic should be even more under control) is somehow ‘unsafe’. Or at least they would struggle if consistency and honesty were traits with which they were in any way familiar.

On the substance of the question, it’s hard to assess how safe and sensible holding elections in the middle of a pandemic is in reality. Whilst there are plenty of examples of other countries which have done so, there’s no hard evidence of which I’m aware which assesses whether, and to what extent, those elections have helped to spread the virus. It would be surprising if an event which led to millions of people going out to polling stations had no impact at all, given how easily the virus spreads. But conducting the elections entirely by means of postal ballots would clearly be safer than insisting on people physically casting their ballots at a polling station, so there is an obvious way of dramatically reducing any potential impact.

The real impact which will worry the politicians more isn’t the holding of the election itself, it’s their ability to campaign, and particularly to have the direct contact with electors which is the basis of most campaigning. Whilst telephone canvassing can work up to a point, many electors have a strong aversion to it, particularly when it involves multiple calls from multiple parties. And don’t even mention robo-calls: why any party thinks they’re a good idea is one of life’s little mysteries. On the other hand, many years of direct experience of active campaigning on doorsteps has left me unsure as to the actual impact of canvassing at election times. Certainly, I’ve met many who have said that they would switch from party A to party B as a result of our doorstep encounter, but presumably, party A’s campaigners are also finding people who are switching from B to A as a result of the same process. And besides – whisper it quietly – it’s not exactly unknown for voters to lie to canvassers. Especially if they’ve been dragged away from Coronation Street to answer the doorbell and are keen to get back to it.

An election with limited campaigning is still an election, but to the extent that doorstep campaigning affects outcomes, the lack of such campaigning is likely to marginally favour incumbents and/or parties and politicians receiving favourable media coverage at the time*. That question of marginal advantage or disadvantage is, almost certainly, one of the main factors which politicians will be weighing up as they decide whether to support postponement. Currently, we don’t know how bad the pandemic will be in April/May, but we can probably have a degree of confidence that the situation will have improved by the autumn as the vaccination programme starts to have an effect, although new variants and mutations cannot be discounted. Whatever the politicians might think, I suspect that those front-line staff who are giving so much would probably prefer not to take an unnecessary risk if it can be avoided. That ought to be sufficient reason to take an early decision to postpone.

*Having said that, I’ve known candidates who would probably have benefited from not being allowed to knock too many doors! One who claimed to have been born on Venus immediately springs to mind, but there are plenty of more down-to-earth examples.


dafis said...

Most of the candidates I've ever met on my doorstep are seriously detrimental to whatever cause they claim to represent. I get more integrity from double glazing salesmen !. Parties need to recruit people with real life experience, not verbally fluent, shallow graduate types who have been groomed within a party machine after brief careers in "research" or similar groupthink echo chamber.

As for timing, well go ahead with it with full access to postal votes. By now there should have been a UK wide capability to engage in electronic voting but we all know about the defects of the broadband roll out here in Wales.It should have been free access for all to basic public services so that folk could vote, do their banking, pay their council tax, utilities etc and interact with likes of HMRC and VAT. For a modest monthly fee they could also widen the scope of their service. Too hard for the dimwits running the country and driving the project. Instead we get state sponsored isolation of communities and profiteering by fat cat corporate types.

Spirit of BME said...

One of the finest rules that good politicians live by is – ‘Don’t take any decision, unless you have to’ and I think this is a good case where they should abide by that advice at this time.
One spoiler on the horizon is the registration of the Reform Party which will see the advantage of standing in an election system that allows ‘swivel- eyed loons’ to quote the great Spliff Cameron, as against the first past-the post, which has an effect of squeezing them out. So, should they go early or wait?
One other thing we might see, is an announcement by HMG that they will spend large amount of money on a brand-new computer system based on remote voting. But all computers have their problems which has proved so useful in the USA of late, and we know that on both sides of the Atlantic there is enough evidence to show that postal vote is badly compromised, so it might be any easy sell.

John Dixon said...


"...all computers have their problems which has proved so useful in the USA of late, and we know that on both sides of the Atlantic there is enough evidence to show that postal vote is badly compromised" And your evidence for either of those sweeping statements is ... what exactly?

"One other thing we might see, is an announcement by HMG that they will spend large amount of money on a brand-new computer system based on remote voting" Now that wouldn't surprise me at all, although I won't be entirely certain that it will happen until the government absolutely rules it out. But the idea that a robust, fully operating IT system could be developed rapidly is for the birds - another reason to suspect that they'll probably try and do it.