Counting the costs of the 'break-neck speed' EU elections

By Ian Miller | 04 June 2019

Election teams in Northern Ireland and across most of England are recovering from what must be their busiest month in recent history – two major elections within three weeks of each other, closer together than the local and General elections in 2017. Pity colleagues in Peterborough with a Parliamentary by-election on 6 June as well!

It was not a 'breeze' for Scotland, Wales and the rest of England to administer only the European Parliamentary elections. They were organised at break-neck speed, entirely a consequence of the Government’s and Parliament’s inability to agree whether, when and how the United Kingdom should leave the European Union.  This was incompatible with the complex and detailed requirements in electoral processes. Regional returning officers did an excellent job in working with local counterparts over only 8 weeks or so to ensure that each region’s processes were as effectively organised as possible.

My first learning point is directed at the Government and House of Commons: if discussions over the coming weeks result in agreement that the UK should leave the EU but subject to a confirmatory referendum before 31 October, legislation should be passed no later than the end of August.  If the Conservative leadership election means that progress is stifled for much of June and July, then Parliament needs to be ready to sacrifice its summer recess so that the process – if it involves a further referendum – is not rushed. It will not be acceptable if the difficulties of the last few weeks are repeated by legislation being delayed to September or (God forbid) early October.

Many will be thankful that local elections were not combined with European  elections as happened in previous years. Considerable political turmoil in the local elections mostly resulted from the situation in Westminster. However if those elections had been delayed to 23 May and the Brexit Party had fielded a full slate of candidates, in many areas – including my own – they would have won 100% of the seats being contested.  Would that have been helpful  and good for governance in addressing the significant challenges local government faces, most of which have nothing to do with whether the UK is a member of the EU: the issue of funding for social care, for example.

Local results are often influenced by the national position. The party in power at Westminster tends to do less well than the opposition. However the results in early May - and the results that could have occurred if the two elections had been combined - demonstrate to me why the recent 'Hitting Reset' report from Localis rightly called for five year terms for councillors. To minimise the “influence” of national issues on local elections, the pattern of elections should ensure that combination is not permitted. If that means genuine fixed term Parliaments in Westminster and elsewhere, so be it. Councillors have to work together over several years in councils with whole council elections, whether or not one party secures a majority. Why not MPs?

The complex and muddled state of electoral legislation was exposed again. The Law Commissions have called for radical overhaul with common provisions that would apply to all elections, subject only to necessary variations (such as different voting methods used for, say, police and crime commissioners compared to single-member or multi-member wards). The Government has not acted. This is why candidates’ home addresses in the European elections had to be publically available, unlike those of candidates in the council elections. The Government amended rules relating to local elections but forgot to amend the rules for European elections when it finally conceded that they would be held.

Finally, running two major electoral processes at the same time – the timetables overlapped from mid April to early May – meant that small electoral teams were placed under intense pressure. The benefit of clear plans, regular project meetings and double checking all tasks has been proven again. It would not surprise me if in some cases small glitches occurred given the circumstances, which were of the Government’s making. The Electoral Commission’s decision that it would not “actively monitor” performance against its performance standards was welcome. If there was no noticeable difference to the quality of administration of the European elections as a result, perhaps returning officers might be spared this example of centralised performance management in future?

Ian Miller is returning officer for Wyre Forest District Council and was local returning officer for Wyre Forest in the European Parliamentary elections. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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