In the run-up to the first London Mayor election in 2000 there was a fierce stand-off between the House of Lords and the then Labour government over whether there would be a ‘freepost election address’ for the contest. This service, used for elections such as to the House of Commons and the European Parliament, provides for the free delivery of one leaflet from each candidate to each voter, providing a basic minimum level of communication to the public about the contest.
During the stand-off, the late Conrad Russell led an effective rebellion invoking rarely used Lords procedures. I remember talking to two senior peers, one Tory and one Lib Dem, as he walked down the corridor in the distance. “That’s the man the government is scared of,” one said to the other, and rightly so as the dispute threatened to derail the whole contest.
The government’s attempts to persuade Tories and Lib Dems to back down included arguments that any sort of freepost was impractical. To make the point, I was summoned to a meeting at the ministry. I walked into the room, representing the Liberal Democrats, and took a seat at one end of a very long, very wide table. In then walked one person from government to meet me. And another. And another. And another. And on until over a dozen people were ranged around the table in such an obvious attempt to politely intimidate that I had to remember not to laugh.
In the end, a new form of combined freepost was agreed as the Conrad Russell led Lib Dem / Tory coalition extracted a significant concession – one booklet rather than individual leaflets. Alas, the lesson about the importance of informing the public during elections seems to have been forgotten by the current coalition as the plans for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections are to have no freepost.
The Electoral Commission has now repeated, and more firmly, its previous concerns about that decision:
Information people need to help them choose between candidates will be provided through a central website, the Home Office has said.
In other major elections, the government has funded a freepost mailout from candidates or the distribution of a booklet containing candidates’ messages.
The Electoral Commission, which scrutinises polls, says it is concerned about the change.
In its response to a Home Office consultation, the commission says: “Only providing information about PCC candidates on a central website will disproportionately affect groups that have low levels of internet access, such as the elderly and those who live in rural areas.” (BBC)