Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Today (25th July 2012), on the Bristol 24-7 website, I have an article published regarding Bristol City Council's plans to charge some as yet indeterminate amount but estimated at somewhere around £2,000 (but potentially higher) to candidates for the right to be included in the Election Address Booklet that the Council is, by law, required to send out to every voter in the city.

This proposal by Bristol City Council to charge Mayoral candidates 3 or 4 times as much as was charged by Liverpool, Salford or Leicester to be included in the Booklet demonstrates what happens when we reduce discussions about the democratic process to one essentially based on costs to the taxpayer rather than benefits to the voter.

There is a democratic tradition in this country, going back well over a century, of funding at least one free delivery of a campaign leaflet for candidates in a General Election. This was and remains an attempt to both create a more informed electorate, and to alleviate some of the negative effects of funding disparities between candidates.

The system used in the General Election process is flexible, allowing a candidate to have almost total control over the printing and production of their campaign leaflet (so they can choose between, say an A4 full colour leaflet at, maybe, 2p per leaflet or perhaps an A5 black and white leaflet at 0.5p per leaflet) but also allows them to choose whether to have a leaflet delivered to every voter in the constituency (say 85,000) or, alternatively, to every household (40-50,000).

As a result, a candidate can spend £1,700 on an A4 leaflet to every voter, or £200 on an A5 to every household thus offering a wider range of cost options to a candidate.

However, even the cheaper option might be beyond the reach of some candidates.

In which case you can still hand-deliver to a smaller, possibly more focused group of households and still have some hope of competing with your better funded rivals.

Nevertheless, as far as the receiving household is concerned your campaign leaflet landing on the doormat has as much potential impact as the one delivered by freepost.

Compare this to the Election Booklet for the Mayoral election. The Returning Officer decides on the costs and whether to use full colour or not, A4 size or A5, even if you choose to use black and white there will be no financial benefit in doing so because, in Bristol, your costs are simply based on the amount of space you have.

Further, if you cannot afford to be included in the Election Booklet you are at a further disadvantage because even if you do deliver your own campaign leaflet there is now a subtle but important distinction between your election address and those from other candidates.

The Election Booklet, by its very nature, is the “official” book of election addresses – any election address outside of this context is likely to be seen as somehow less official because it is not in the official election booklet.

The concept of equality of candidate's election addresses when they hit the doormat of any single household has been compromised and the candidates have been divided into "official" candidates and "fringe" candidates.

On the other hand, there are also benefits to the Election Booklet system, and these benefits are largely in terms of costs to the taxpayer. It is only the production and printing costs that the candidate is expected to contribute to, not the delivery costs -these are entirely borne by the taxpayer.

Delivery to every voter in Bristol costs about £88k, delivery to every household about £43k. Thus, if all the election addresses are in a single booklet delivered once to every voter then the cost to the taxpayer will be £88k. On the other hand, if the freepost system was used this delivery cost will increase considerably.

In assessing the options for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections, the government calculated that delivery costs using the Freepost system as opposed to the single booklet used in Mayoral elections would be three times as high (£35m vs £12m) - applying that ratio to the Bristol Mayor elections implies a delivery cost under Freepost of £257k, all of which would have to be paid by the Bristol taxpayer.

In other words, the use of a single booklet is a cost saving exercise for the taxpayer, and it is with this in mind that the cities of Liverpool, Salford, Leicester, London and so on decided that they would ask for only a relatively nominal contribution from candidates towards the cost of producing and printing the booklet.

This constitutes a passing on to the candidates of a small proportion of the much larger cost savings to the taxpayer of this method of delivering an election address to every voter, and recognises the importance of ensuring that this cost-saving method is able to fulfill its role of informing the electorate about ALL of the candidates.

It is Bristol, and Bristol alone, that has decided to interpret the legislation in such a way as to try to recoup all of the production and printing costs applicable to each candidate and by doing so potentially undermine a process that offers benefits to both voter and taxpayer alike.

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