When good intentions go bad: the Tower Hamlets Mayoral election

There are good reasons for having laws that require local councils to be politically impartial in their publicity work. The Mayor election currently underway in Tower Hamlets has shown, once again, the big problem with the existing rules (for English and Welsh councils).

The council wanted to include a 200 word statement from each nominated Mayor candidate in the latest council newspaper. With the option open to every nominated candidate, this would have been a fair and useful step. However, the restrictions on council publicity do not simply require the council to be fair, they require the council to avoid political information – and each of those 200 word statements would have been political information. Net result – idea gets axed.

This is not a case of the lawyers at Tower Hamlets Council being unduly and unusually cautious in their interpretation of the rules. Other councils have run into simple issues in the past. The daftest example are councils who run articles from the council leader in their publications but then have decided they cannot politically balance this by providing article space to the leader of other council groups too. That is because the Leader is viewed, for the purpose of these rules, as a part of the council and so their column is permissible (as long as it does not contain partisan information) but a group leader is a politician.

These cases are even worse than that in Tower Hamlets as there is in practice still a political benefit for the council leader, so they get an advantage over others. In the Tower Hamlets case at least everyone is on an equal playing field, even if it is the sort of lowest common denominator that gives the whole process a bad name.

Either way, these make for good reasons to change the rules and allow councils some leeway to provide politically balanced information on an equal basis. After all, democracy is being hindered rather than served by a council deciding it cannot let the public know more about the candidates they are about to have to choose between.

Something for your next de-regulation Mr Pickles?

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