Elections in a pandemic

Jason Lowther

Well over a thousand British citizens are currently losing their lives each day to Coronavirus in the UK, tens of thousands more are still dealing with ‘long Covid’ aftermaths.  As new variants of the virus appear more infectious, and the vaccination campaign gets into high gear, is the Government’s insistence that 65 million citizens should be voting in elections in 14 weeks’ time a valiant defence of our democratic freedoms – or a foolish waste of time and money that will likely be pulled at the last minute? 

Thursday 6th May 2021 is scheduled for a mass of elections across the UK – including all 24 county councils, six unitaries, three Combined Authorities, Police and Crime Commissioners, and all seats in the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments.  Every citizen in England, Scotland and Wales would be involved in one or more of these elections. Some of these elections have already been delayed for a year, depriving citizens of the chance to choose their elected representatives.

But are safe and fair elections feasible at this stage in the pandemic? 

Other countries have been running elections through 2020.  An interesting example is Bavaria, the largest and second most populous of Germany’s 16 federal states (Länder).  As the Covid pandemic hit the region hard in late March 2020, the second (run-off) stage of their election was completed 100% by post.  Ballot papers were automatically sent to all electors in the relevant districts.  Voters did not need to take any action, instead they received their postal vote at home automatically and could submit their votes by post up to 6pm the evening before election day.  An evaluation by Rebecca Wagner, a doctoral researcher at the Peace Research Institute (PRIF) in Frankfurt, found that turnouts were not adversely affected and concluded ‘a competitive electoral environment was evident with no particular electoral advantage for the incumbent parties’. 

Toby James, Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the University of East Anglia and Alistair Clark, Reader in Politics at Newcastle University, have looked at the evidence from more than 100 local and national elections held in other countries during 2020.  Their findings again highlight the importance of enabling postal voting in aiding turnout and reducing risks to staff and the public.  To do this in the UK, they say urgent action would be needed to spread the voting over several days, provide councils with extra funding for the task, and make policy decisions more transparent and inclusive.

100% postal ballots may not be feasible by May.  Peter Stanyon, chief executive of the Association of Electoral Administrators, said at the start of January 2021 that all-postal ballots were not a practical solution for the May elections, and could increase the risk of fraud.  We could also ask where the additional money will come from, given councils are in severe financial distress already?  The Covid Expenditure Pressures Grant is already stretched extremely thinly.

Looking at the UK, the Electoral Commission has reported findings based on its assessment of six more traditional council by-elections held during Covid restrictions last year.  They found that it was possible to have elections under the restrictions then in place (before more infectious Covid strains developed), but that additional time and money is needed to do this safely.  Venues, for voting and for counts, are crucial – for example, will the usual schools and church halls be available? 

Council staff and members are worried that running elections at this stage in the Covid-19 pandemic is going to be very difficult.  In late January, a Local Government Information Unit poll of council Chief Executives (who act as returning officers), heads of Democratic Services and Council leaders showed that 66% were “very concerned” about holding the elections in May.  Even higher percentages were worried about recruiting and training election workers, disenfranchising voters with Covid concerns, the costs of running Covid-safe arrangements, and candidates being unable to campaign effectively. Chloe Smith MP, Minister of State for the Constitution and Devolution, has recently written to political parties confirming that the traditional door-to-door leafleting and canvassing is not acceptable under Covid restrictions. 

Neil Johnston’s excellent House of Commons Library research briefing  on the impact of coronavirus on the 2021 elections notes that the devolved administrations are one step ahead of Westminster.  The Scottish Parliament passed the Scottish General Election (Coronavirus) Bill in December 2020, giving emergency powers to be used as a last resort. They would allow for all-postal voting, voting over more than one day and to delay the elections for six months.  Similar powers are included in emergency laws introduced in Wales this week.

Listening to council chief executives over the last couple of weeks, there’s a real concern at spending money and moving staff unnecessarily when there is so much pressure on councils already.  And almost incredulity that the Government seems unwilling to seriously consider delaying until October. 

Looking at experiences here and internationally, the Westminster government too might be wise to start contemplating a Plan B.  As always, local government will rise to the challenge if the decision is to go ahead in May. But let’s consider that by late summer, all nine groups at highest risk from Coronavirus are due to have been fully vaccinated – we could by around October be in a much more stable position for these important elections to take place safely and fairly, and without detracting from the vital roles councils have in tackling the pandemic right now. 

Jason Lowther is Director of the Institute for Local Government Studies (INLOGOV).

The local and mayoral elections – and the significance of that 4-2 scoreline

Chris Game

Local elections present the INLOGOV blog with an annual dilemma. They’re the heartbeat of democratic local government, its lifeblood, or something equally vital. So, they must be covered and key results namechecked. But INLOGOV’s not a news service, and, with so many Friday counts nowadays and results instantly available on social media, you have somehow to strike a balance.

The first part of this blog, therefore, will give the headlines, from a strictly local government perspective. That means, first, changes in council control; second, changes in councillor numbers; and third, excluding one minor indulgence, no conjecturing whatever about implications for that other election.

Conservatives, of course, were the big winners, almost everywhere. So, to be perverse, we’ll start with a titbit of consolatory Labour news, from the seven unitary polls. Durham it still controls, and Northumberland – thanks to the Conservative candidate in the potentially decisive ward literally picking the short straw – stays technically hung, though no longer under Labour minority control. After mass gains from particularly Independents, Conservatives are the largest party in Cornwall and back in control in the Isle of Wight.

Of the 27 non-metropolitan counties, even before last Thursday Labour had majority control in only Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, and shared minority control in Cumbria and Lancashire. Conservatives are now in control of the first and last of these and are easily the largest party in the other two. Cambridgeshire, East Sussex, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Oxfordshire, Suffolk and Warwickshire all swung from minority to majority Conservative control.

As was widely, and even gleefully, reported, UKIP too lost heavily, its single gain in Lancashire being rather more than counterbalanced by at least double-figure losses in Cambridgeshire, Kent, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and West Sussex.

Turning to overall councillor numbers, the Conservatives gained what for a party in national government was an almost mind-boggling 563 seats: 319 in England, 164 in Scotland, far more than doubling their previous representation, and 80 in Wales – the latter, according to more knowledgeable commentators than I, putting the party on course (in that election I’m not mentioning) for its first nationwide Welsh victory since the Earl of Derby managed it in 1859.

Labour’s car crash involved losing net 382 councillors – bringing to 15 years the period since, in terms of councillor numbers, it was the largest party in GB local government – UKIP 145, and the Liberal Democrats what must have been a deeply dispiriting 42.

And so to what, for the immediate future of at least England’s sub-national government, were surely last week’s most important elections, and collectively way up there amongst the most mind-boggling: those of our first(?) six metro mayors. I can hardly imagine the odds you could have got, even a week ago, on four of the six being Conservative. However, it’s there in my table, in blue and pink. And, whatever one’s reservations about elected mayors and the whole limited, top-down, Treasury-driven, fiscally minimal devolution model, I’d suggest that nothing over the past 11 months has given it a greater boost.


The first several months of May’s premiership she spent almost visibly dithering over what to do about the severed agenda of devo deals and elected mayors she’d inherited from the axed George Osborne and shuffled ex-Communities Secretary, Greg Clark. Then – I simplify enormously – two things happened.

First, Andy Street decided he’d stop being MD of the John Lewis Partnership and run as a Conservative for the biggest and politically most attractive metro mayoralty of all, the West Mids – in time to be adopted, and then paraded with May at the party’s October Birmingham conference.

At the same time, something else helped change her view that one big reason why metro mayors were a bad idea was that most, if not all, would be Labour. Several of Clark’s nine envisaged metro-mayoral city regions, during the May-created devo vacuum, started for various reasons to lose interest or patience and drop out – West Yorkshire, Sheffield City Region, the North East – and the political arithmetic began to alter. To the extent that I suggested she could realistically conceive of the first set of mayoral elections producing three Conservative and three Labour mayors. Even for the sake of an eye-catching headline, though, I’d never have contemplated 4-2.

And, as the table shows, three of the four results, after the two counts involved in the Supplementary Vote (SV) electoral system, were extremely close. Street’s majority was exceptionally so – 0.71979% of over half a million votes cast, to be precise. This in itself would weaken any victor’s mandate, particularly when achieved in what, by the standards of anything other than Police and Crime Commissioner ballots, were very low-turnout elections.

The SV system was adopted for mayoral elections almost by accident, and many consider that the more familiar Alternative Vote – that we rejected for parliamentary elections in the 2011 referendum – would be fitter for this particular purpose. Its defenders, though, claim it has worked well in London, is voter-friendly, produces clear winners, and is accepted by all concerned.

My table would suggest otherwise, at least on its first showing. In the West Midlands, in a hugely significant election decided by well under 4,000 votes, over 40,000 votes that might have contributed to the result didn’t do so. They were either not used at all, or were cast for candidates who, highly predictably in this instance, had already been eliminated after the first count.

It’s impossible to avoid the conclusion that large numbers even of the small minority who turned out didn’t fully comprehend the system they were voting in – for which the Electoral Commission must be held chiefly responsible. As also for the huge disparities in candidate expenditure permitted before the ‘regulated’ campaign period, which again in such a closely run race can and will be alleged to have been decisive. In short, the Commission, as well as the mayors themselves, have plenty of work to do in what is only a three-year term to 2020.

Chris Game - pic

Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Who’s voting for what on 5th May?

Chris Game

We all know why the English local elections on 5th May are important, don’t we? They’ll test Labour’s electability under Jeremy Corbyn, and possibly Corbyn’s own survivability. They’ll show whether the Lib Dems’ glacially slow recovery has been boosted by their new leader, Tim Farron – and whether UKIP repeats its General Election performance in votes (lots) or seats (very few). Above all, though, the parties’ national equivalent vote shares will be taken as an early indicator of who might win the 2020 General Election – by the people who last year couldn’t on 6th May tell us who would win outright the following day.

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Thursday’s local elections: Catzilla and the county councils

Chris Game

I really wish sometimes – OK, occasionally – that I still did my British Government undergraduate lectures. This would be revision season, with lectures atypically well attended, by previously unseen students hoping for hints about exam questions. And there’d be the local elections, and the opportunity to point out once more that, as students, many of them could not only register twice, at home and at their term-time address, but also in these elections vote twice – and try to persuade them to do both at least once.

It’s not easy. Post-election opinion polls tell us that in the 2010 General Election, for example, 56% of 18-24 year olds didn’t vote, compared to 35% of all electors and only 24% of over-65s. They don’t usually tell us, though, that most of those 56% couldn’t vote, because they weren’t even registered. The Electoral Commission can, though, and their statistics on the inaccuracy of electoral registers are alarming. Using known population growth rates, the Commission reckoned the April 2011 registers, showing an electorate of around 45 million, were 15% inaccurate, that at least 6 million people in GB were unregistered, and among 17-24 year olds the non-registration rate was 44%.

The Commission runs regular campaigns to promote registration, this year’s being clearly aimed at these elusive young people. I’m not sure about its effectiveness, but I’d certainly use it, and I can recall few visual aids of whose student appeal I would be more confident. ItsYourVote is a website whose home page comprises a satellite image of the UK, and a warning that “Without a vote, you have no say in what happens in your local area”. To learn what fearful fate that might be, you enter your postcode, whereupon the satellite homes in and you discover that, should you fail to register, “come election time, you may as well be vaporised by Catzilla’s rainbow laser eyes”, or possibly seized by a massive disco fairground grabber, or swept up by a giant ice cream scoop.

Source: ItsYourVote

The Daily Mail thinks the website “absurd” and an appalling waste of public money. But I fear it misses the subtlety. While obviously the ice cream scoop is a bit silly, you can see that Catzilla, though provoked by the under-registration of Birmingham University students, has been impressively selective in his vaporisation of our Edgbaston campus – wiping out the Law faculty and the entire University administration, but leaving untouched, for instance, the Muirhead Tower and my civic-savvy, fully registered INLOGOV colleagues.

As it happens, the Commission’s efforts would be wasted on most of our students this year, for, as noted in my elections preview blog, this is the one year in four when the metropolitan boroughs like Birmingham, along with most unitary authorities and shire districts, don’t elect any of their councillors. This leaves just 37 councils in England plus one in Wales holding any kind of local elections this week, and, with that first blog having at least briefly covered those in the 8 unitaries and the mayoral elections in Doncaster and North Tyneside, the remainder of this one will focus on the 27 county councils.

They were previously elected in 2009, when Labour’s standing in the opinion polls was desperate – 16% behind the Conservatives, at 23% to 39%, with the Liberal Democrats on 19%. Reflecting those figures, the Conservatives, the dominant party anyway in this tier of local government, won nearly nine times as many seats as Labour – 1,261 to 145, with the Lib Dems taking 346 – and took majority control of every one of the 27 councils except Cumbria, where they became the leading party in a Conservative/Labour/Independent coalition.

2009 is therefore the baseline against which to assess the prospects and eventual performance of the various political parties, whose standings in the polls today are, of course, dramatically different. In this week’s Sunday Times YouGov poll, Labour have a 9% lead (40% to 31%) over the Conservatives, with the Lib Dems and UK Independence Party (UKIP) level on 11%, and the Greens on 3%. These figures indicate a Conservative –> Labour swing of nearly 13% since 2009, and no swing at all between the Conservatives and Lib Dems. It’s a blunt measure, but about the best we have for assessing the electoral chances of the major parties.

In the same poll, incidentally, UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, gets a higher rating as a party leader – 44% saying he’s doing a good job – than Cameron (36%), Ed Miliband (29%), or Nick Clegg (21%). Partly because of headlineable findings like these, and partly because they are a real, but unpredictable, threat to all parties in these elections, UKIP have, as Karin Bottom noted last week, been attracting the bulk of media attention. In terms of seats, though not councils, gained, they will undoubtedly be among Friday’s winners – indeed, it’s about the one knowable thing about them – but mainly because they’ve virtually nothing to lose.

UKIP like boasting of their “army of councillors sitting on borough, town, county and parish councils across the UK”. This army, though, would make Gideon’s little band of soldiers that took on the Midianites seem like a legion. In fact, its massed ranks contain just over 100 town and parish councillors (out of 75,000) and about 30 on principal authorities – including 11 (out of 1,800+) on county councils. And there’s a similar economy with the truth in its manifesto claim that “where UKIP is in charge of local government, we use that power to cut costs … we believe that council taxes should go down, not up”. Back on Earth, the only local government of which UKIP has ever had charge is Ramsey Town Council in Huntingdonshire, Cambs., and since taking ‘power’ in 2011 they have ‘slashed’ the council tax precept by +28%, from £42.56 on Band D to £54.61 in 2012-13.

Council tax rates are, quite properly, a big issue in these elections, but hardly a straightforward one. First, Coalition Government ministers have from the outset done their utmost to set – that is, freeze – all councils’ tax and spending totals themselves, by bribing them with limited and potentially disadvantageous freeze grants. Second, it is the districts, not the county councils being elected this week, who are the billing authorities who will have sent out the bills and be trying to collect the taxes, even though it’s the counties who do about 90% of the actual spending.

Third, this year, although almost all counties obediently accepted their one-off grant deals and froze their tax precepts, well over a third of the districts refused them and raised their tax bills – more than half of whom were Conservative-controlled. So, does a voter in one of these ‘naughty’ districts, urged by David Cameron to vote Conservative for lower council taxes, punish the council that raised its tax or reward the county that didn’t?

It’s nothing like as simple as, for instance, street-lighting. It’s not, perhaps surprisingly, a statutory obligation for any council, but, if your street lights are being dimmed or switched off in the interests of economy, it’s almost certainly the county who control the photo-electric timers. So, either way, if you approve of the cost and carbon savings, or disapprove of jeopardising safety and security, you know how to vote.

So how many of the 27 counties, all Conservative today, will be differently controlled come Friday? In Cumbria, the one that half got away in 2009, Labour in recent years has usually had a plurality, if rarely a majority, and will be looking to regain that position of largest single party. However, a Conservative Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) was elected in November, and, as elsewhere, Ed Miliband’s claim to be “fighting for every vote” is undermined by the party fielding 14 fewer candidates than in 2009, while Greens are up from 15 to 31, UKIP from 4 to 52, and, in another sign of the times, the British National Party (BNP) down from 41 to 9.

While becoming largest party may be fine in Cumbria, in the four councils Labour held virtually uninterruptedly from 1981 until 2005, anything short of winning back majority control will surely count as failure. Derbyshire was numerically the Conservatives’ narrowest capture, with 33 of the council’s 64 seats, and they have already lost that overall majority, with one councillor having to resign for unsavoury personal reasons and another switching allegiance to UKIP. Even a modest swing should do. Nottinghamshire is much trickier, for in 2009 Labour lost seats variously to the Conservatives, the Lib Dems, UKIP (in Ashfield), and assorted Independents, especially in Mansfield. A straight swing of even 10% from the Conservatives might not be enough, but a repeat of those with which they won by-elections in Worksop and Rufford certainly would. In Lancashire too Labour need almost to reverse the trouncing they suffered at the hands of all parties, including the Greens and BNP. A 5% swing from the Lib Dems in Burnley, where they have already won back one seat in a by-election, and a 10% swing from the Conservatives elsewhere should do it – even without ousting the notoriously independent Idle Toad, Tom Sharratt, from his South Ribble fastness.

If Lancashire was a trouncing, Staffordshire was a bloodbath, from which Labour crawled out with just 3 of its former 32 seats. With nearly two-thirds of divisional boundaries having been changed, it is difficult even to assess the scale of the task of regaining majority control from such a tiny base, the most promising guide being perhaps the results in the three districts that held elections last year. In both Cannock Chase and Newcastle-under-Lyme Labour took majority control of the council by gaining a total of 15 seats from the Conservatives, Lib Dems, and in Newcastle also from UKIP. In Tamworth too they won seats from the Conservatives, and across the three councils there was an average Conservative –> Labour swing since 2009 of 14%, which, repeated on Thursday, would indeed have been sufficient, without boundary changes, for Labour to reverse the horrors of 2009. In November, on the other hand, the electorate – or a very small portion of them – preferred a Conservative PCC.

Had the Lib Dems gone into opposition in 2010, rather than national coalition, they too would be aiming to regain the councils they lost in 2009: Somerset, Devon and, although it became a single-county unitary at the same time, Cornwall. But two years of depressing opinion polls and local election results are taking their toll, and Devon, for example, seems to be one of several counties in which UKIP candidates will outnumber Lib Dems. Indeed, Ilfracombe, in Lib Dem hands for years, appears to be being surrendered without even a defence.

Somerset, where almost all contests are between the Conservatives and Lib Dems, and the latter were in majority control for most of the period between 1993 and 2009, is a much stronger prospect. Again, extensive boundary changes make projections difficult, but even a 5% Conservative –> Lib Dem swing on existing boundaries would be enough for the Lib Dems to regain control. But, as noted above, there’s been no perceptible swing at all, and the easy victory of an Independent in the Avon & Somerset PCC election may suggest that this is particularly promising territory for independents and smaller parties.

As for the rest, it might seem that in these uncertain times, if a case can be made for Staffordshire being recoverable by Labour from a councillor base of three, almost anything is possible. Well, yes – but realistically, even a really good result for Labour would probably be limited to depriving the Conservatives of their overall control in a few more councils. One could be Warwickshire, which, as a minority administration Labour have run for longer in recent years than have the Conservatives, and another Northamptonshire, one of apparently a small handful who are all claiming to have “the lowest council tax set by any of the 27 shire counties in England”.

Clearly they can’t all be right, and, this being an academic blog, I feel it’s appropriately pedantic to close by citing the relevant House of Commons note reporting that Northamptonshire’s Band D equivalent precept of £1,028.11 is in fact only third lowest, behind Staffordshire (£1,027.25) and Somerset (£1,027.30).


Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.

Prestatyn’s election farce and the busted petition process

Chris Game

Remember the 2000 US Presidential election, the seemingly endless Florida recounts, and how we mocked an electoral system that took 35 days to produce a winner?  Well, it’s now over eight times as long – 287 days and counting – since last May’s Welsh local elections. Yet, with a tad less riding on the result, one of the winning candidates in Denbighshire County Council’s Prestatyn North ward has still to take his seat. And if that doesn’t signify a busted system, utterly unfit for purpose, it’s hard to imagine what might.

It’s a story that started as mildly amusing, passed through farcical around October, and is now just an all-round total embarrassment. It’s most easily understood by seeing the election result as announced by the Returning Officer (RO), from which you may also be able to guess the problem.

prestatyn table

Source: Denbighshire County Council

Yes, one of the Conservative candidates and one of Labour’s have quite similar surnames, and, while many electors certainly will have split their three votes between candidates of different parties, a Labour-Conservative split result of these dimensions looks, to say the least, odd. It was. Without getting too nerdy, Pennington (Con) had been credited with a share of the votes of those who voted en bloc for all three Labour candidates, and Penlington (remember: L for Labour) with the rather smaller share of the ‘straight slate’ Conservative ballots. In electoral administration jargon, there was a screw-up.

At which point, I would say two things. First, such inept-but-innocent counting screw-ups happen more often, and with more significant consequences, than you might think. In Broxtowe (Notts) last year, the names of a Lib Dem husband and wife were transposed in copying them from the corresponding numbers list to the count summary sheet, and the wife was officially declared elected, despite polling 21 fewer votes than her now officially defeated husband.

Waltham Forest in 2010 managed a mix of Broxtowe and Prestatyn. In copying Labour’s en bloc votes, Labour’s three candidates each received 2,451 instead of 1,451 – sufficient to enable the party’s third-placed candidate to be elected, rather than the leading Lib Dem. And in a much publicised case in Birmingham’s Kingstanding ward in 2006, a BNP candidate was elected, having been gifted an extra 981 votes in a double-counting of all those ballot papers on which electors split their two votes between candidates of different parties.

With these Waltham Forest and Birmingham cases in mind, my second point is that the numbers of votes involved in these screw-ups can be not only large, but beyond the bounds of arithmetical possibility. The combined votes of all candidates – announced, it’s worth emphasising, by the ROs, after recounts rigorously scrutinised by candidates and agents of all parties – totalled respectively 1,397 and 2,367 more than would have been possible, even if every voter completing a ballot paper had used every vote available to them.

This is the bit that, to me anyway, passeth all understanding. Can candidates have so little idea of how the election’s gone that they’re not curious about why their vote is 50% higher than they might have expected? And how come none of these key actors involved in the counts could do even simple addition?

Whatever the explanation, once a candidate is declared elected, these essentially innocent administrative errors immediately become seriously costly. It might seem convenient, if an embarrassed RO were able publicly to admit that “Oops, I made a boo-boo. Can we all go back five minutes?”  Sadly, election law and convention decree that this is not on. In the UK the only way to challenge a declared result is legally, and expensively, for a miffed candidate or elector to issue an election petition within three weeks of the election, pay the £465 fee, and also ‘give security’ for all relevant costs arising – up to £5,000 in a parliamentary election, £2,500 in a local. No security, no petition.

Here’s where the trouble starts and where fundamental reform is decades overdue.  A robust procedure for challenging the result, whether on the grounds of innocent administrative error or deliberate fraudulent practice, is a vital part of any sound electoral system. It should have the attributes of ARTESSA, being accessible, rational, transparent, efficient, straightforward, swift and affordable. Our petition procedure today, little changed from that set out in the 1868 Parliamentary Elections Act to deal with bribery, treating, personation, undue influence and other corrupt practices, is none of these, as Prestatyn North’s hapless Paul Penlington is still discovering the hard way.

That there had been a substantial counting error was first realised apparently by the RO and Council Chief Executive. Labour, both candidate and party, were slow to protest – one suggested reason being that, without knowing the exact number of wrongly assigned votes, there was the real possibility of a correction letting in not Penlington, but the fourth-placed Mike German, a one-time Labour councillor before he defected to help form the Democratic Alliance of Wales – than whom even a usurping Conservative might be marginally preferable. Eventually, however, a petition was issued, to have the votes recounted and the result overturned.

Despite the Council having admitted from the outset its “fundamental error”, it still took until late July for the jury-less High Court to authorise a recount, and a further three months for that count to take place in, for some reason, London.  Unhurried, certainly, but only now does the tale become truly incredible.

The result of a recount can only be officially announced and accepted by a special two-judge election court, which took nearly a further three months to convene – again in London. Only on January 23rd, therefore, were the correct figures finally declared – Penlington 606, Pennington 341 – and the original result overturned.

You wouldn’t, by now, expect the ruling to come into effect immediately, and of course it didn’t.  The duly elected Councillor Penlington should, though, have taken his seat a week later – had former-Councillor Pennington not decided that the loss of his allowances would put his “livelihood at stake”, refused to give up his seat, and objected in writing to the court’s decision.  Incidentally, legal costs, awarded against the Returning Officer, were estimated at this point to have passed £20,000, with the clock presumably still ticking.

There is so much wrong here that, even given the space, it would be hard to know where to start: the time, the cost, the arcane and detrimental procedures, the irrationality and inflexibility? Why the great rush to issue a petition, when the judicial process meanders as it pleases? Why can one elector challenge a parliamentary election, while four are required for a local election? Why can’t a Returning Officer or a political party initiate a petition?  And so much more – most now thankfully documented in the Electoral Commission’s excellent report, Challenging Elections in the UK.

Prestatyn North may be just a quirky contemporary footnote, but it does illustrate one key aspect of the problem. The petition procedure was designed to deal with 19th Century corrupt practices in parliamentary elections. Its requirement today is to deal with 21st Century corrupt practices, and more frequently with innocent errors and administrative misjudgements, in local government elections – for which it is hopelessly ill-equipped.

There were 52 parliamentary petitions tried in 1868 alone, all dealing with alleged malpractice. Since 1929, however, there have been just 11, including six from Northern Ireland and three from the single constituency of Fermanagh & South Tyrone. They sometimes make headlines – the then Anthony Wedgwood Benn’s disqualification as a Peer in 1961, ex-Labour minister Phil Woolas’s disqualification in 2010 for making false statements about his Lib Dem opponent – but they’re rare.

Local government election petitions are not rare. Since 1997, at least 44 from principal councils have gone to trial, plenty more from town and parish councils, and still more have been withdrawn before trial, usually due to lack of funds. Of the 16 in the past five years, two (both subsequently withdrawn) claimed a candidate was disqualified to stand, and three alleged corrupt or illegal practices committed by or on behalf of a candidate.

The remaining 11 concerned actions by electoral officials: either administrative Prestatyn-type errors or process decisions causing the election not to have been conducted ‘substantially in accordance’ with the rules – actions, in short, wholly different from those with which petitions were designed to deal.  

The Law Commission has embarked on a comprehensive review of electoral law, aimed ambitiously at collating and reforming the existing morass of primary and secondary legislation into something more coherent, and conceivably even a single modular UK Electoral Act. It’s still in its early stages, and its members may hope that when they eventually reach ‘Challenging the election result’, they’ll be almost there. The sorry saga of Prestatyn should remind them that they won’t be.


Chris is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political  leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.