Letter to Chloe Smith MP regarding May 2021 Elections and Door Step Campaigning

"We look forward to receiving confirmation that door-step campaigning will be permitted and that independent candidates and smaller political parties, will not be put at a significant disadvantage by the ban on such campaigning."


Chloe Smith MP
Minister of State for the Constitution and Devolution Cabinet Office
70 Whitehall London SWlA 2AS
Our ref: SB/THEIN 1/2/PCP869
Your ref:

26 February 2021

URGENT - BY EMAIL AND POST

Dear Minister

May 2021 Elections and Door Step Campaigning

We are instructed to act on behalf of Independent Councillors across local government and are writing to you in respect of your letter to the Members of the Parliamentary Parties Panel of 22 in which you set out some advice to "political parties", to reflect the Government's position in respect of "doorstep" campaigning during the national lockdown in England.

The guidance contained within your letter of 22 January 2021, does not take into account the position of the significant number of dedicated and hardworking independent politicians who are either currently considering standing for re-election in the upcoming Local, Mayoral and PCC Elections in May 2021, or those who may be minded to stand for the first time as independent candidates.

To illustrate this, as of May 2020 there were 2,888 independent and smaller councillors across England and Wales.

The guidance appears to have been prepared solely with political parties in mind which, as we are sure you appreciate, have access to (often significant) funds and infrastructure to help their candidates in their local campaigns. This includes the ability to easily undertake campaigning through other means including publications, post, commercial delivery services and online and telephone campaigning.

Independent candidates often find themselves in an altogether different position and in the majority of cases, will be reliant on doorstep campaigning in order to raise the profile of their candidacy, and to inform the public of their political agenda and the changes that they hope to be able to introduce, to the benefit of their local community by being elected. The same is true in respect of smaller political parties.

We are aware that Cllr. Marianne Overton MBE (in her capacity as Leader of the Local Government Association Independent Group), has written to you twice, to which she has not had a response. Those letters set out very clearly (and in some detail), the detrimental effect that your advice on doorstep campaigning, will have on independent candidates and smaller political parties. For ease of reference, we enclose copies of those letters and would invite you to consider them carefully . The detrimental effect of your advice and the position adopted by the Government, will be hugely beneficial to the larger and well-resourced political parties (notably, the Conservative and Labour parties), who often find seats they hold on Local Authorities, to be the subject of a challenge by independent candidates. In raising this issue with you, we are in no way suggesting that through your advice, you have sought to gain an advantage for your own party in the Local Elections, but it is an unintended consequence of your advice and one of the logistical difficulties that COVID-19 posed at the time of writing your advice.

Since your letter of 22 January 2021 on 5 February 2021 (the same date as Cllr. Overton's last letter to you), the Cabinet Office has published a Policy Paper titled: May 2021 Polls Delivery Plan. Section 5 of the Policy Paper, sets out the importance of the campaigning process to the electoral system. Again, this paper fails to acknowledge the effect that a ban on doorstep campaigning will have on the effectiveness of campaigns undertaken by independent candidates and the limited resources available to them. Independent candidates are not referenced at all in the paper - which refers to "leafleting and door-knocking" by "party activists" not being permissible - and as such, it seems that very little thought has been given to them. Very few independent candidates would be supported by "party activists" and the ban on party activists from door-step campaigning would, we suggest, have less of an impact on the party for whom such activists would be campaigning, with the party concerned having more likely than not other resources open to them to get their campaign message across to the  local electorate. The approach to an independent candidate doorstep campaigning should not, in any way, be compared to that of a party activist - for the reasons set out in the above and in the enclosed.

We have noted that there is an intention in both your letter of 22 January 2021 and the Policy Paper to issue further guidance on permitted face-to-face campaigning, and that the intention appears to be that this guidance will be issued before the regulated period (29 March 2021). The situation in England, has clearly and dramatically, changed since both documents were published. On 22 February 2021,the Prime Minister announced the four-step roadmap to ease restrictions across England. That roadmap has now been published.

Paragraph 95 of the roadmap provides that

...The Government will amend the regulations to enable a broader range of campaign­ related activity from 8 M arch, but it is essential that this still takes place in a COVID-Secure way, in line with guidance and the law. The Government will be publishing further guidance for candidates, their agents and political parties on campaigning in the elections in due course, and will be engaging with the Parliamentary Parties Panel on this guidance shortly to ensure the views of political parties are taken into account."

There is, again, a noted absence of any reference to the views and needs of independent candidates being taken into account as part of this review process. We would urge the Government to consider the views presented by ourselves and Cllr. Overton directly to you in this correspondence, as part of any review being currently undertaken and confirm, without further delay, that doorstep campaigning will be permitted (in a COVID-secure way). To wait until 8 March 2021 (or later), to confirm this, presents a  real risk that those who may have been considering standing as independent candidates in this year's Elections, will have been irreversibly put off from standing.

A loss of independent candidates standing in, or being able to effectively campaign for, this year's Elections, represents a significant blow to our Democratic system and presents a real unfairness that cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. Although this letter is not intended to be taken as the start of any legal proceedings, the effect of the current ban on door-step campaigning by independent candidates, is such that it is likely the Government will face legal proceedings unless it revises its position prior to the regulated period.

We look forward to receiving confirmation that door-step campaigning will be permitted and that independent candidates and smaller political parties, will not be put at a significant disadvantage by the ban on such campaigning.

A copy of this letter has been sent to the Prime Minister, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government for their information, given their respective roles in dealing with matters related to the Government's response to COVID-19 and issues of Local Government.

Yours faithfully

Partner (Barrister) Knights Solicitors

CC: Rt. Hon Boris Johnson MP
Rt. Hon Michael Gove MP Rt.
Hon Robert Jenrick MP
(all by email only)

Knights Solicitors, Regency House, 25 High Street, Tunbridge Wells, Kent TN1 1UT
Telephone 01892 537311
Facsimile 01892 526141
Website: www. knights-solicitors .co.uk
email: knights@knights-solicitors.co.uk
Partners: Matthew Knight, Simon Bell, Jonathan Manser
Associates: Richard Atkins, Peter Colman
Authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA No. 78180)