Foot and mouth wont stand in the way of democracy

15 Mar 01
Postal voting could replace polling stations in rural areas as ministers battle to keep the May 3 English local elections on course despite the spread of foot and mouth disease.

16 March 2001

The government this week dismissed claims that the local elections would be undemocratic in rural areas, maintaining that people would 'still logistically be able to vote', although postal and telephone ballots are likely to be used in restricted areas.

But as the number of reported foot and mouth cases reached 205 on March 14, a number of county leaders were demanding a postponement. 'The government should give serious consideration to delaying the election,' said Ken Thornber, Conservative leader of Hampshire County Council. 'It would be insensitive for party campaigners to canvass, access would be difficult because of exclusion zones which could result in disenfranchisement. This is a time for parties to be working together rather than splitting off and electioneering.'

Peter Chalke, the Conservative leader of Wiltshire County Council, described the elections as a diversion. 'People have enough on their plate already,' he said. Brian Greenslade, Liberal Democrat leader of Devon, which has been badly hit by the outbreak, said the disease presented a 'democratic problem'.

But Labour council leaders rounded on the dissenters, accusing them of making party political gains from the crisis. 'The Tories are playing political games by trying to get the county council elections delayed,' said Martin Davey, Northumberland's leader. Cheryl Hall, Labour group leader at Kent, said cancellation at such a late stage would be a huge waste of public funds.

But with conflicting messages from ministers and little guidance from the Local Government Association, confusion still reigns over the likelihood of a May 3 election for the 34 English counties.

Environment minister Michael Meacher said the intention was to proceed with the polls 'at the moment', but this could change if the outbreak worsened. But there is speculation that the crisis could last until at least July.

With 2,203 seats up for election, county councils are now left in limbo until March 26 – the official notice of election – for final confirmation.


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