Yesterday afternoon’s national government decision that the elections for London Mayor and the London Assembly scheduled for 7 May will be postponed for a whole year – along with all other UK elections planned for that date – was the culmination of a day of contradictory messages about the matter and remains a little puzzling. It also raises a few questions about what happens next.
In the morning, parliamentary lobby journalists reported Downing Street saying that the elections should go ahead, despite the chief executive of the Electoral Commission strongly recommending they be put back until the autumn. Also in the morning, Sadiq Khan talked to London TV journalists, mostly (though not only) about coronavirus. An interview with BBC London’s Tom Edwards was broadcast at 1:30.
In it, the Mayor said the advice he had been given by Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty when they had met on Wednesday was that “there is no logical reason why the elections shouldn’t take place.” Whitty, he continued, had been “quite clear” that it should be made as easy as possible for people to arrange postal votes if they were concerned about contracting coronavirus from going to polling booths, but, “If there is a small risk of people catching the virus when they go and vote, that small risk can be made even smaller by simple steps like wiping down pencils that people use to vote. So he [Whitty] could see no reason to cancel the election,” the Mayor said.
He also told Edwards that “the government last night said as far as they are concerned they’re going ahead, they’re going to facilitate the election on May the 7th. So my response as a candidate but also as the Mayor is to follow the advice and to work on the basis that there will be an election on May 7th.”
It was, perhaps, surprising that the Electoral Commission’s urgings were apparently not being heeded. But the stance of the government, as conveyed to journalists and (perhaps directly) to the Mayor appeared to be that Londoners would still be voting on 7 May.
Then, out the blue, late in the afternoon, the BBC began reporting something different. Guess what? The London elections and those elsewhere were to be postponed, not just until the autumn as the Electoral Commission had recommended but for a whole year due to concerns about coronavirus.
This was a decision by the Cabinet Office, whose job is “to support the Prime Minister and ensure the effective running of government”. It would be interesting to know what, if any, communication there was between it and Downing Street before the postponement decision was made. What is plain is that the BBC’s report was the first the London Assembly part of City Hall knew about it. “We understand” that the elections have been postponed, came the line in response. “We await details from the Cabinet Office.”
They are not alone. The postponement was greeted with deferential acceptance of expert opinion by the main London Mayor candidates, albeit expert opinion now seemed completely different from what the Mayor had said he had been given by Chris Witty only two days earlier – that there was “no logical reason” why the elections could not take place. And why postpone for a whole year, rather than only until the autumn as the Electoral Commission had advised? We await enlightenment.
In the meantime, the delay has implications for the Assembly membership. On London understands that Labour Londonwide AM Tom Copley will shortly take up the position of deputy mayor for housing as intended. He will stand down as an AM at the end of next week. This means his Assembly seat will be filled by the highest-placed Labour candidate on the party’s Londonwide list not to get elected under the proportional representation part of the Assembly election system in 2016. That candidate was Murad Qureshi, who lost his seat that year having served for three four-year terms. He is now expected to return.
But a question remains about two other current AMs, Labour’s Florence Eshalomi (Lambeth & Southwark) and the Conservatives’ Gareth Bacon (Bexley & Bromley). Both became MPs in December’s general election and were due to stand down before the 7 May Assembly election. Will they now continue doing both jobs until next May (on already much-reduced Assembly pay, by the way) or will an exception to the mass postponement be made so that Assembly constituency by-elections can take place later this year? Precent suggests not. As former AM Roger Evans recalls, Andrew Pelling was both an AM for Croydon & Sutton and an MP for Croydon Central from 2005 until 2008. City Hall hopes for clarification in due course.
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