Electoral Commission warns government over refusal to provide election freepost to Police Commissioner candidates

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)

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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This entry was posted in Election law and News.


  • toryboysnevergrowup 20th Mar '12 - 1:09pm

    This really is an outrage. So who is intimidating who this time – or are the Tories playing their old game of just pretending it isn’t an issue.

  • Liberal Neil 20th Mar '12 - 1:10pm

    Presumably they will be mailing every elector to tell them about the website?

  • Chris Rennard 20th Mar '12 - 3:14pm

    It is rare for me to suggest that Mark’s memory might be slightly at fault in any respect – but the battle to ensure that there would be funding to promote the candidates in the London Mayoral elections in 2000 was actually led by me and the late Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish.


    Mark is right to say that there is a serious question about how Police Commissioner elections could be conducted that mirrors the the arguments that we had over the 2000 Mayoral elections.

    In 2000, Labour were keen not to give Ken Livingstone (then Independent) or other parties any resource to contest the Mayoral election by way of the traditional funding of Freepost mailings as for parliamentary elections to Europe, westminster, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

    We and the Conservatives threatened to block the Mayoral election unless the Government agreed to fund the election addresses. The eventual compromise was the booklet featuring 2 A5 pages from all the Mayoral candidates and set out in the way that they wanted.

    Now the plan for Police Commissioner elections (costing some £160m) does not provide for anything more than candidates promoting themselved via links being promoted to their websites.

    I have tabled a question in the Lords this week asking if the Government has estimated the cost of delivering election addresses in these elections or providing booklets (a more sensible and cheaper option) in order to allow voters to make a choice.

    It seems to me that if we have Police Commissioner or Mayoral elections, then either the parties or the candidates need funding one way or another (election address booklets or some general funding) otherwise there will not be a real democratic choice and the winners will simply be the best known names or kin some cases the choice of the biggest local paper?

  • Simon Drage 20th Mar '12 - 3:27pm

    Please do keep up the pressure on this. If we have to have Police Commissioners there should at least be a chance for electors to receive some information about them.

  • As usual, Mark throws light into the dark but important recesses of the electoral machine. Either the government wants these posts to be elected or it does not. Elected commissioners are an awful idea, but if they are meant to be elected then providing a basic level of information is vital.

    On an unrelated topic, it’s a shame that there will not be a liberal candidate in most of the freepost booklets — even if they do get created.

  • Richard Church 20th Mar '12 - 7:52pm

    In addition candidates will have to take the risk of losing a £5k deposit. So we have let the Tories create a silly election in which the turnout will be derisory and in which only the rich can stand.

  • Nick O'Shea 22nd Mar '12 - 6:29pm

    It is going to be hard enough to get people interested in these elections – with no freepost and no party funding, even if we stand candidates (which I hope we do) it is going to be almost impossible to get our message across. The democratic process requires and assumes a reasonable level palying field between candidates, but with no practical way for our candidates to address the electorate, these elections are in danger of being seriously flawed, adding to the controversy about the wisdom of having direct elections for them in the first place.
    Only the Euro elections have consitituencies of similar size, without freepost how can the electorate have a chance to understand the issues and canididates sufficiently to be able know what they are voting for?
    These elections are already liable to become a serious media circus, with the TV in particular putting their own slant on the campaign. A freepost will enable candidates at least some opportunity to present their policies and programme to the electorate. Given that most constituencies will have electorates approaching or exceeding 1m, they will have little chance to met and talk to and explain their policies to even a small proportion of the voters..

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