Should Scottish elections go ahead during a pandemic?

DECISION DAY: Scots go to the polls on May 6.

Did you know there’s an election in 73 days’ time? I’ve been struck by how many normal people (which is to say, people who don’t watch BBC Parliament to relax) are unaware that Scotland goes to the polls on May 6. Being kept away from Holyrood by the pandemic brings all sorts of disadvantages for a political journalist, but it does give you an insight into the gulf between the chatter inside the bubble and what the country at large is talking about.

The bubble is near bursting with speculation about the outcome of the Scottish Parliament poll and what it might mean for the possibility of another referendum on independence. The rest of the country is focused on jabs, school reopenings and supermarket delivery slots and for some talk of an election has still not filtered through.

Whenever I’ve had the conversation with non-politicos in recent weeks, those learning for the first time that a vote is on the way have tended to say the same thing: Shouldn’t we get the pandemic out of the way first? It’s a question I now find myself asking because, although in principle I’d rather see democracy defy Covid, I can’t shake my concerns about the safety and logistical implications of going ahead as normal.

These aren’t normal times. People have been forced to stay at home and instructed only to leave the house for essential reasons, yet for one day in May those requirements will cease to exist. For some reason, it will pose no or little risk to have hundreds of thousands — even millions — of people leave their homes, travel to their polling station and queue up to vote in tiny booths. We are told it is unsafe for 51 people, sitting at two metres’ distance, to worship in a church but that it is entirely safe for hundreds to cram into a church hall to cast their ballot.

Now, it could be that general restrictions have been relaxed by then but here ministers risk sending mixed messages. On several occasions in the last 11 months, businesses learned only at the last minute that they would have to close or remain closed, with pubs and the retail trade especially prone to the caprices of St Andrew’s House. Yet the same ministers and officials have been able to say for months that the Holyrood vote was good to go.

Much of the public health rationale for going ahead with the election rests on the use of postal ballots. Maximise voting by post and you minimise the risk of new Covid cases piling up faster than ballot papers. Officials have suggested that two million Scots could have their say by post this year, but to achieve that will require Herculean operations for both registration and counting. In the 2016 election, less than one-fifth of eligible electors applied for a postal vote and almost one-quarter of them were not returned. In all, postal votes accounted for less than one-quarter of ballots cast.

Processing such an expansion in postal vote applications will place a heavy burden on local authority staff, many of whom are working remotely, while counting these ballots in a way that retains the confidence of parties, candidates and the public may prove particularly onerous.

Then there are the practicalities involved in getting two million people to register for a vote by post. The form is online, like most other things these days, but not everyone is as digitally literate as our tech-worshipping culture assumes. Older people, in particular, risk losing their vote. While some cyber-savvy grandmothers could put their gamer grandchildren to shame, some will be without a computer, tablet or smartphone. Others still find navigating the web confusing and intimidating. (I use a clutch of digital devices every day for work, yet when I tried to register for a postal vote yesterday I had to go through three different websites — UK Government, local authority, Electoral Commission — before landing on the correct form.)

In ordinary times, this wouldn’t be a problem; applicants could phone up the council and get a form sent to them. But how many older people will feel comfortable venturing out to find a pillar box, possibly having to take public transport to reach one? The deadline for postal vote applications is April 6. Even those who have received both Covid jabs by that point may be apprehensive, given the uncertainty about the vaccine’s effectiveness against emerging variants of the virus. Children, neighbours or friends could usually help by dropping off forms or giving lifts to the post office but restrictions on mixing make this more difficult or impossible.

There is a very real chance that older people — and other vulnerable groups — could be disenfranchised in this election, and in numbers disproportionate to the rest of the population. That should not be an acceptable outcome for anyone. It’s true that local elections are taking place in England on the same day, but hasn’t the whole thrust of the Scottish Government’s Covid response been to take a more cautious approach than down south?

To put suspicious minds at ease, the case for delaying the election has nothing to do with the SNP being so far ahead in the polls. When the vaccination stage of the pandemic is complete, Chancellor Rishi Sunak will be looking to jump-start economic recovery and we have to expect that this will include a phasing out of the Job Retention Scheme and efficiency savings to bring the national debt back under control. Even if the government manages to avoid Osborne-style austerity, it will still have to take some very unpopular decisions. If the Holyrood poll was postponed for six months or even a year, there is every chance the SNP’s polling lead could be even higher than it is today.

This is not about politics or polling. It is about public safety and the integrity of elections, specifically about ensuring that certain groups aren’t excluded because officials making decisions don’t fully understand their needs. No one’s health should be put in jeopardy when they go to vote but nor should their vote be forfeited because they are not au fait with digital technology.

Scotland does not feel like a country 73 days away from a major election. Perhaps a turbo-charged effort is about to leap forth from the Scottish Government and town halls across the nation but the hurdles it will face are daunting.

It is not too late for ministers and officials to rethink their plans and decide to err on the side of caution. Lives, jobs, relationships and routine healthcare have been put on hold until the pandemic is over. There is no reason the same cannot be done with an election.


Scottish Labour leadership hopeful Anas Sarwar said something last week that stuck with me: ‘Just imagine if we had spent the last four or eight years obsessed with ending poverty like we’ve been obsessed with independence or Brexit.’

There is plenty to obsess over. Even before Covid-19, 23 per cent of Scottish children were living in relative poverty and 20 per cent in absolute poverty. Among the worst-off families with children, 61 per cent cannot afford to set aside £10 a month in savings. Between 2014 and 2019, there was an 80 per cent increase in Scots turning to food banks.

This kind of poverty isn’t just a political failure, it’s a moral failure, especially when we know the poorest children are more likely to struggle in school and suffer ill-health.
Just imagine if Nicola Sturgeon was obsessed with that instead of flags. Just imagine if Scottish Labour had a leader like Anas Sarwar who could offer Scots an alternative to indolent nationalism.


Oliver Lewis has quit the beleaguered Union Unit after just two weeks. His resignation came as Larry the Cat celebrated ten years as Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office. Larry has seen off two prime ministers, three chancellors and rival moggy Palmerston. If the PM needs someone to take on the SNP, he would be purr-fect for the job.


Originally published in the Scottish Daily Mail. Letters: scotletters [insert @ symbol]

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