This week, every household in Liverpool will receive a booklet from the city council containing election addresses from the 12 candidates seeking to become the city’s first directly-elected mayor.
In theory, this arrangement, which is used for all mayoral elections, helps to level the playing-field for candidates, providing all with an equal chance to reach the electorate. This is especially important for candidates standing for minor parties or as independents, who simply do not have the resources or infrastructure required to leaflet every household in a local authority, particularly one as populous as Liverpool.
As with other mayoral elections, the local authority is responsible for producing and distributing the booklet. Candidates must provide their artwork to the deadline and design specifications set by the Returning Officer, and are required to make a ‘reasonable’ financial contribution towards the cost of producing and distributing the booklet.
So far, so sensible. But a row has been developing in Liverpool about the apparent ‘censorship’ of election addresses by the Returning Officer. Two of the 12 candidates say that they had been ‘required’ (although the City Council says ‘advised’) to make change to their election addresses before inclusion in the booklet.
The first instance relates to the leaflet produced by the Liberal Party candidate, Steve Radford. In this case, the Returning Officer raised concerns about a satirical reference to Liverpool Direct, a customer contact operation run as a joint-venture between the city council and British Telecom, as ‘Liverpool MisDirect’.
The second instance concerns the leaflet submitted by Tony Mulhearn, standing for the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition. In Mulhearn’s case, the Returning Officer apparently raised several concerns about the wording of the election address, including his statements that he would not let “private companies infest the NHS” and that a huge redevelopment scheme for the docklands of North Liverpool represented “jam tomorrow”.
In both cases, the election addresses which appear in the booklet have been amended to remove the text about which the Returning Officer had raised ‘concerns’. Inevitably, and understandably, both candidates have argued that their freedom of speech has been curtailed. Indeed, anyone who has been involved in a local election campaign, or even just had occasion to read the leaflets distributed by candidates at election time, will almost certainly be astonished to find that a Returning Officer apparently has the power to require, or even advise, a candidate to amend his or her election address.
The claimed legal basis for the Returning Officer intervening in this way is provided by The Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) Regulations 2007. These specify that “An election address must contain matter relating to the election only” and also that “an election address must not contain … any material referring to any other candidate”.
It is principally on the grounds of material being ‘irrelevant’ to the election that Liverpool’s Returning Officer, Ged Fitzgerald, who is also the Chief Executive of the city council, has taken the highly unusual step of intervening in the wording of election addresses. Given the immensely subjective nature of any judgement as to what is ‘relevant’ to an election, his actions must surely go far beyond what the authors of the legislation are likely to have intended.
It is not the first time such a controversy has arisen. In Hackney in 2010, the Conservative candidate’s leaflet was excluded from the booklet on the grounds that it criticised the salary paid to the mayor and members of his cabinet.
Given this earlier precedent, the emerging ‘censorship’ row in Liverpool must be seen in a wider context. On 3 May, 10 large English cities will hold referendums on whether to adopt the system of directly-elected mayors. While electors in some cities will reject the idea, there is no doubt that mayoral contests will become an increasingly important feature of English politics.
In cities which vote in favour of elected mayors, the first mayoral contest will take place in November 2012. Given recent events in Liverpool, urgent clarification is needed before the Autumn about what the legal powers Returning Officers may exercise in requiring or requesting a candidate to amend their electoral address.
This article also appears on Unlock Democracy’s blog.