19 March 2021 — True Publica
The election of Boris Johnson has ended up with the prime Minister using special Covid legislation to entrench power not seen since the times of Henry VIII. The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill is a stark warning to anyone who doubts that assertion. In the meantime, democracy is being slowly chipped away behind the scenes – and here is yet another (of an ever-growing list) example that only demonstrates this dreadful attack on our democratic principles and civil liberty.
Rights and democracy groups have urged the government to clarify rules on political leafleting, ahead of the May elections.
Six NGOs and the Local Government Association Independent Group have written to Chloe Smith, Minister for the Cabinet Office, urging her to “affirm that political leafleting is lawful.” The intervention follows a letter issued by the Minister to the Parliamentary Parties Panel, claiming that the current lockdown restrictions “do not support door to door campaigning or leafleting by individual political party activists.”
The letter has alarmed democracy campaigners, who say there is no leafleting ban in the restrictions and the Government’s claim of a ban could interfere with the right to free expression and the functioning of democracy.
The groups behind the letter – Big Brother Watch, Article 19, Fair Vote UK, Index of Censorship, Liberty, Unlock Democracy and the LGA Independent Group – urged Chloe Smith to withdraw the guidance. In their letter, they warned that the “suggestion of a prohibition on political leafleting would contradict the continuation of other postal and delivery services, lack a public health justification, lack legal authority, engage the right to freedom of expression protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, and threaten the functioning of democracy.”
After the Minister’s guidance was published, two independent councillors in Ashfield were fined for delivering what police described as “political canvassing material”. This week, a Welsh Assembly Member was visited at home by South Wales Police and cautioned for political leafleting.
Madeleine Stone, Legal and Policy Officer at Big Brother Watch, said:
“The freedom to distribute political leaflets is a basic right in a functioning democracy. It would be deeply cynical for Ministers to use the shield of covid restrictions to attempt to take this political freedom away just before an election, with no logical public health reason and questionable legal authority.
“It is extremely worrying that the Government is attempting to curtail a key part of the democratic process with such little justification. The suppression of leafleting could stifle free and fair elections in May and it must be challenged. This is a real nosedive for democracy.”
Tom Brake, Director of Unlock Democracy, said:
“Seeking to ban leafleting by volunteers which smaller parties rely on during election campaigns, whilst giving a green light to delivery by commercial companies defies logic. But when this ban is combined with an increase in election spending limits, then the logic emerges.
“The level playing field for political parties is suddenly heavily tipped in the government’s favour.”
Kyle Taylor, Director of Fair Vote UK, said:
“With the ability for candidates and parties to campaign already reduced by the COVID-19 crisis, it is unnecessarily stifling of democratic debate to restrict volunteer human delivery of campaigning literature if they practice social distancing and follow all government guidance.
“There is a serious consistency issue. If the real concern is risk then why is paid human delivery allowed when that person is effectively being made to do something the government deems to risky to be done on a voluntary basis?
“Fairness is also a factor. Larger parties, with fuller coffers, gain a serious advantage simply by their ability to pay for paid delivery. Success at the polls shouldn’t be determined by money but by open and robust debate.”