The Liberal Democrats have come under fire for continuing to deliver party political leaflets during the national coronavirus lockdown.
Both Labour and the Conservatives claimed Ed Davey’s party was breaching the “Stay at Home” guidance by keeping up door-to-door deliveries of campaigning material.
But the Lib Dems insisted that their activists were allowed to leaflet because it counts as a form of “volunteering”, which they say is exempt from the government guidance to stay indoors. They also hit back that Labour and Tory activists had sent out leaflets too.
Both main parties have ordered their own local members to suspend all leaflet deliveries until the lockdown is eased, telling them to send material by post or relying on online campaigning.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner has written to the Liberal Democrats to say she is “deeply concerned” by his party’s continued activity.
“I urge you to put the national interest ahead of party political interests and act immediately to suspend leaflet deliveries during lockdown,” Rayner said in a letter seen by HuffPost UK.
She added that Lib Dem MP and spokesperson Layla Moran told BBC Radio 4 last weekend that members should not be delivering campaign material because “we don’t feel that’s right”.
The Lib Dems told HuffPost UK that it was “more important than ever” to keep connected with residents and its president Mark Pack has written back to Rayner to insist that the deliveries are in line with appropriate health and legal advice.
“Our local volunteers have a valuable part to play in helping keep their residents informed about important issues and our guidance helps ensure this is done safely and appropriately,” Pack said.
Activists wear masks and socially distance when doing deliveries, knocking on doors to engage with residents is not allowed, the party says.
The Lib Dems’ website advises its activists: “The World Health Organisation has concluded that there is very little risk of spreading the virus on paper. Distribution of mail by post, delivery of parcels and online shopping, and home delivery of daily newspapers continues. Please consider carefully what is suitable content and tone for literature in the current environment.
“The current lockdown guidance and legislation expressly permit people to leave their home to provide voluntary services that cannot reasonably be undertaken from home.
“Therefore volunteering to deliver a round of leaflets locally to the volunteer’s home falls into this category, especially where the leaflets in question signpost local residents to Covid support and provide contact details for their local elected representatives and/or vital local services.”
However, Labour and the Tories pointed to a string of Lib Dem leaflets distributed in Watford, Oldham and Liverpool that contains party political campaign material rather than just links to Covid support, all with an eye on this year’s crucial local elections due in May.
A leaflet in Watford attacked Tory-run Hertfordshire county council over road repairs and deaths from covid in care homes.
Leaflets in Oldham criticised the Tories for not backing local speed limits in Oldham and for national planning proposals.
In Liverpool, the Lib Dems put out a newspaper claiming the Labour-run city council played “monopoly” with residents’ cash.
Hampshire police had written to local Lib Dems in Andover with “appropriate advice” after leaflets were hand delivered on January 4.
“We have been made aware of campaign leaflets being delivered in the Andover area, for which there is no exception for under the previous tier four regulations and now the national lockdown,” a force spokesperson said at the time.
But party president Pack made a strong defence of the practice and suggested that Labour had itself sent out leaflets after the January 4 lockdown.
The Lib Dems pointed to their opponents’ material in Hull and Sunderland, and to Conservative material that dropped through letterboxes on January 5 in Cheadle.
The Tories said that their activists had been ordered on January 6 to halt all leaflet deliveries. Labour informed its regional directors and council leaders soon after the lockdown to suspend leaflets, following up with a formal email on January 8.
Tory party co-charman Amanda Milling said: “It’s disappointing that the Lib Dems are continuing to try and capitalise on the pandemic for their own political gain.
“We are asking all of our volunteers to stay at home to protect themselves and others during the national lockdown.
“It is on all of us to work together to control the virus, protect the NHS and save lives and the best way we can do that is by staying at home.”
Guildford Tory MP Angela Richardson said she had seen “not one, not two, but several examples of the Liberal Democrats across the country exploiting a loophole to keep delivering literature”.”The messaging is perfectly clear: stay home, protect the NHS and save lives,” she said.
Constitution minister Chloe Smith made clear her disapproval of the Lib Dem practice, saying “voters expect to be able to participate safely in elections, and at a time such as this they expect everybody to play their part in that”.
She added: “We are in a public health crisis and in a pandemic, and we therefore have a duty to the public to ensure that important civic functions, which include elections, go ahead only in a safe way. It is also important that political parties play their part in that, as so many other workers and volunteers across all sorts of sectors across the country over the months have been able to do.”
But a Lib Dem spokesperson hit back: “Current government regulations permit volunteering as long as it is done safely, near to home and not in groups. We have issued clear guidance on how to do that to all our Councillors and volunteers.
“Up and down the country, Liberal Democrat MPs and councillors have a proud track record of keeping in touch with their local community all year round.
“Right now it is more important than ever to keep people connected through essential communications like leaflets, which highlight how vulnerable people can access essential services during Covid. For many elderly or isolated people, this can be their only source of help.”
The Lib Dems pointed to Labour delivered leaflets in Hull in January, including attacks on their party over litter patrols.
Sources at the Electoral Commission said that there were currently no specific provisions in the government’s lockdown Covid regulations from January that relate to election campaigning.
“We are in discussion with government on this issue and we know it is an area they are currently looking at, and we’ll reflect the latest advice when we publish our guidance for candidates and campaigners shortly,” a source said.
The Cabinet Office pointed to the minister’s words on the issue, suggesting further advice from it and the Electoral Commission on campaigning safely in line with covid restrictions will be provided in good time ahead of the local elections.
Angela Rayner’s letter to Lib Dem president Mark Park
I am writing to you regarding national lockdown restrictions and political campaigning. The rules of national lockdown are clear – people must stay at home, apart from for essential reasons such as shopping for food, travelling to work if they cannot work from home or to exercise outside.
On BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour on Sunday 10th January, Liberal Democrats MP and Party spokesperson Layla Moran, speaking on behalf of the Liberal Democrats leadership, said “We’re telling our deliverers at the moment… We’re not asking them to deliver anything given the national lockdown and given the advice… We don’t feel that’s right”.
However, party political leaflets have been delivered by Liberal Democrat activists since national lockdown restrictions have been introduced, and I have attached examples from Watford and the Wirral. We all have a responsibility to keep others safe, drive down infections and save lives, particularly political parties that seek to represent and serve the British people.
The restrictions in place during national lockdown are unambiguous and universal – people must stay at home, apart from for essential reasons that do not include party political campaigning.
I am deeply concerned that Liberal Democrat activists continue to deliver party political leaflets during national lockdown. I urge you to follow the example of the Labour Party and suspend volunteer leaflet deliveries during lockdown immediately.
Will the Liberal Democrats publish a statement today making clear that leaflet deliveries should not be taking place during lockdown and as President will you ensure that no further volunteer leaflet deliveries take place during national lockdown restrictions?
I am also deeply concerned that a Liberal Democrat spokesperson clearly misled the public when speaking on the BBC on 10th January. Her comments directly contradict guidance published on the Liberal Democrats website encouraging volunteer leaflet delivery and claiming that it is line with “Stay At Home” national lockdown restrictions. Will Layla Moran correct the record? Will this guidance be removed from the Liberal Democrats website?
In this national effort to defeat Coronavirus we all have a responsibility to keep ourselves and others safe, control infections, protect our NHS and save lives. I urge you to put the national interest ahead of party political interests and act immediately to suspend leaflet deliveries during lockdown.
Lib Dem president Mark Pack’s reply to Angela Rayner
Thank you very much for your letter. Our guidance is based on a careful consideration of both the health advice and legal advice as to what is appropriate. Our local volunteers have a valuable part to play in helping keep their residents informed about important issues and our guidance helps ensure this is done safely and appropriately.
I was slightly surprised by the content of your letter, however, as this yesterday afternoon one of my colleagues received the attached leaflet from the Labour Party (which for absolute clarity you will see includes the line “As we are in the lockdown…”). This is just one of multiple examples of Labour literature received in the last week, which I am happy to share with you if you’ve not seen them.
To date I have no evidence of any Liberal Democrat members ignoring the clear guidance our party has issued on this subject. Based on the leaflet received by my colleague, I can only assume that either your letter isn’t painting the full picture about any advice you have issued, or your local organisations are directly ignoring it.