Covid campaigning: How Norfolk’s councillors plan to get elected in a pandemic

The local election count at the Corn Exchange in King's Lynn. Picture: Ian Burt

The local election count at the Corn Exchange in King's Lynn. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

As the county begins to crawl out from the shadow of coronavirus, Thursday May 6 could dictate the path of Norfolk’s recovery.

This region is one of 21 to be holding county council elections in two months’ time, while a third of Norwich City Council’s 39 councillors will also be elected on the same day.

The Conservatives, led by Andrew Proctor, are looking to improve their 12-seat majority at County Hall, after taking 55 of the 84 seats in 2017.

But from technical issues such as counting votes to practical issues of how councillors will campaign, the pandemic continues to wreak havoc on an election of vital importance for the people of Norfolk. 

The Conservative victory four years ago came at the expense of UKIP and the Green Party, the latter suffering their worst result in Norfolk in 20 years.

Greg Peck, chairman of the Broadland Conservative Association and county councillor for Reepham division, said the Conservatives’ “ambitious” plan to move Norfolk forward following lockdown meant it was “vital we remain at the helm,” in an election which will also see Norfolk get a new Police and Crime Commissioner.

For the other parties in County Hall, coronavirus represents an opportunity to gain ground on a party which has come under frequent fire for its handling of the pandemic.

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“These elections matter,” says Steffan Aquarone, leader of the Liberal Democrats, who has accused the Conservatives of a “badly co-ordinated disinformation campaign” ahead of May 6. 

“They matter not just to us, but to the people of Norfolk who need to have their voices heard.”

But campaign plans have been hampered by constantly changing rules on how to canvass safely. Official door-to-door campaigning is permitted from Monday March 8, provided it adheres to social distancing measures.

The government says the approach “effectively balances the importance of effective elections with the need to protect public health.”

Mr Aquarone – councillor for Melton Constable – remains optimistic for the weeks ahead, saying physical political canvassing is welcomed by those he and his colleagues represent.

“In November, we took the decision to resume door-knocking, naively assuming like everyone else that it was the beginning of the end,” he adds.

“We went through the process of thinking, how are people going to respond? Are they going to be happy to see us, now that we’re knocking for political reasons? I can safely say it was the most positive response I’ve ever had on the doors.”

But this approach is less welcome elsewhere. In Catton Grove – represented by leader of the opposition, Steve Morphew – the desires of voters reveal there is no one-size-fits-all approach to campaigning in a pandemic.  

Mr Morphew, who is looking to increase Labour’s tally of 17 seats, says: “We’ve been asking, do you want us on your doorstep? We’ve been having people quite rightly tell us that they can’t see their families, so they’re not desperately keen on it.

“I perfectly understand that. We need to be really sensitive about the way that we go about this because we don’t want to alienate people, turn them off or, more importantly, put them at risk.”

Norfolk’s political parties have adapted to virtual campaigning, with Mr Peck saying campaigning this year will consist of less door-knocking but a greater focus on social media, leafleting and phone calls.

That is something all the councillors are used to, Mr Morphew adds, with welfare calls to voters throughout successive lockdowns covering topics from pets to goings on at Westminster.

But party politics aside, one overriding sentiment shines through: that this election could define Norfolk’s future as it recovers from the pandemic.

Mr Peck says: “All elections are important of course but our councillors have worked harder than ever over the last year and hopefully the electorate will have seen this.”

Mr Morphew agrees, labelling the election as “crucially important”.

“People are coming out with a different view of the world, different priorities, because we’ve suddenly realised just how important public services and the people who deliver them are,” he adds.

“We’re trying to get people back on their feet as quickly as possible. There are opportunities which we should take, which would be a fitting tribute to the legacy of what people have lost, but also opportunities which have been created out of the sadness.”

Questions remain over how social distancing will be achieved at polling stations and counts across the county, and the role of postal voting in deciding the outcome of the election.

But either way, the pandemic will be a key talking point – and possibly a deciding factor – of the election.

For those involved in local politics, there is a genuine sense of happiness to be out speaking to people again, albeit from a distance.

As Mr Aquarone sums up, “If you’re a political campaigner and you haven’t done anything for the last 12 months, this election isn’t for you.

“This election is to make sure that when we exit lockdown, we’re exiting into a society that is closer to the one we want to live in.”