New look for elections in Suffolk - but not in Colchester!

Colchester election count

A busy count at Colchester in 2019 - but how realistic is it to expect people to work all night in an era of social distancing? - Credit: Archant

It is now absolutely clear that this May's elections will go ahead - albeit in a slightly different form - and local councils are busy making plans for what will be a very busy voting weekend.

That is absolutely the right decision. By May, democracy will effectively have been suspended in the UK for a year and it is vital that voters will be able to have a say on how things are going in this country.

There will, however, be significant differences this year in comparison to usual elections. Those differences are absolutely necessary to ensure the safe participation by as many people as possible.

The interesting thing from my point of view will be how many of those changes are retained after the new "normal" has arrived - presumably by 2022. Will the pandemic institute what many people consider to the a long-overdue re-think of the way we elect our representatives?

In Ipswich, returning officer Russell Williams is going hell-for-leather to persuade as many people as possible to register for postal votes.

Those of us who live in the town will be sent a postal vote application form. From what I understand all we will have to do is sign it, date it, and send it back and the postal vote will be on its way to us at the end of April.

That is an eminently sensible decision. I'm rather surprised it hasn't been adopted by all returning officers - I suspect more will fall into line. Especially as it has received the backing of all political parties represented on the borough council.

The votes being counted in Ipswich

Counting at Ipswich in 2019 - overnight counts like this will not happen in Suffolk this year - Credit: BRITTANY WOODMAN

In Suffolk, too, it looks like there will be a realistic approach to counting the votes. In all the county, there will be votes for county councillors and the Police and Crime Commissioner. In Ipswich, there will be borough elections as well and there will be a scattering of by-elections around the county.

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That means the votes will be sorted and counted over the entire weekend - to ensure the election officials and volunteers are able to do so safely while observing social distancing.

We may not get the final results until Monday - but with the terms of office stretching years ahead, does that really matter?

While election officials in Suffolk appear to taking a wholly pragmatic and sensible approach, it appears that news of the Covid pandemic hasn't yet reached the ears of the bosses at Colchester Borough Council who are organising their elections.

Like Ipswich, Colchester has a third of its council up for election in addition to the county council and Essex PCC.

Unlike Ipswich, it seems that Colchester is making no attempt to come to terms with the reality of the situation and is ploughing ahead with an all-night count which will put monumental strain on its staff.

With everyone voting in three separate elections and the need to sort ballot papers before counting can even begin, you'd be struggling to get any results announced before dawn has broken in any normal year. 

In a year like this, the strain the process will put on staff will be totally unbearable. Frankly, I'm astonished that UNISON isn't kicking up a massive fuss about what in my opinion is a ludicrous decision.

From the outside, in my view it creates the impression of a macho "we've always done it this way and don't want to change" attitude!

For the sake of its staff, political volunteers and everyone else involved in the democratic process in north Essex, I hope the bureaucrats in Colchester have a rethink and come up with a proposal that doesn't put a strain on everyone and could be downright dangerous in terms of spreading Covid.

What all this election planning does, of course, is give a clear indication to the political parties that they do need to be preparing for the polls themselves.

Most already have candidates in place - we learned this week that former Ipswich MP Sandy Martin is hoping to return to the county council.

That move shone a light on one of the enduring feuds of Suffolk politics after Labour dropped Sandra Gage after her dispute with group leader Sarah Adams that included a standards board hearing in 2019.

Two things that have become clear about that dispute is that it essentially is not about politics - it is an issue between two people who basically don't like each other - and that Mr Martin's selection has nothing to do with that row. The one thing Ms Adams and Ms Gage agree on is that they want Mr Martin to win the seat!

But before Labour feel too confident about putting the row behind them, their supporters need to remember that Rushmere isn't the safest seat in town. Ms Gage won it from the Conservatives in 2013 and the Tories are putting a lot of effort into that particular division!

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