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Tuesday 8 November 2016

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TUSC vindicated in Liverpool and Bristol Mayoral elections censorship protest

As the democratic credentials of 'official politics' are being increasingly questioned, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) recently chalked up a modest victory against establishment efforts to prevent alternative voices from being heard.

In the contests held this May for the directly-elected Mayors of Bristol and Liverpool councils the TUSC candidates suffered what can only be described as political censorship of the election addresses they submitted for inclusion in the Mayoral Election Booklets distributed to every elector.

Now, five months later, after formal complaints to the Returning Officers in the two cities, the national Electoral Commission has conceded that the councils' officers were making their own interpretation of the law when they insisted on amendments to the TUSC election addresses. In other words what happened was indeed an exercise in political censorship.

What happened in May

Candidates in Mayoral contests are entitled to have an election address printed in a booklet distributed to every elector. There are rules about the content of the address, that it should not be used for commercial gain or, regarding its political content, that it must not contain "any material referring to any other candidate".

What the rules don't say, however, is that the candidate cannot refer to "the Tory government's demands for cuts" or state that right-wing "Liverpool Labour is slashing our public services"! But those were two of the deletions that were demanded by the Returning Officers in Bristol and Liverpool from the election addresses submitted by the TUSC candidates.

Don't mention the Tories...

The draft election address of TUSC's mayoral candidate in Bristol, Tom Baldwin, included the following passages:

"Over £100m has been cut from Bristol City Council by the mayor and his cross-party cabinet that includes Labour and the Greens".

"Some say there's no choice but to implement council cuts. But Jeremy Corbyn was right when he said austerity is a political choice. The Tories were forced into a U-turn on disability benefits. By getting organised we can push them back on council cuts too, but we also need representatives who will take them on".

"If elected I will... Propose a budget based on Bristol's needs, not the Tory government's demands for cuts".

Incredibly the council's election staff 'advised' that no references could be made to the Tories and the phrase, "Jeremy Corbyn was right when he said austerity is a political choice", should also be removed.

The first passage had to be re-worded so it read, "over £100m has been cut from Bristol City Council", with no reference allowed to the fact these cuts were being implemented by a cross-party cabinet that included Labour and Green party councillors.

If this wasn't straightforward political censorship, covering up which parties have voted for cuts, then what would be?

...or Liverpool's right-wing Labour council

Liverpool's Returning Officer at least allowed a reference to Jeremy Corbyn to remain in the election address submitted by TUSC candidate Roger Bannister. Presumably he interpreted the rule about no references to "any other candidate" as meaning people who were actually standing for the Mayor of Liverpool, not a North London MP who was not, in fact, standing anywhere at all in the 2016 local elections! But his 'liberal' approach had its limits.

Roger's original draft included the following passages:

"Liverpool Labour is slashing our public services while selling off our public land".

"I intend to build on Jeremy Corbyn's anti-austerity campaign which propelled him into the Labour leadership. Jeremy's election has changed the political landscape and given hope to millions, but if local Labour continues to implement cuts, the impact of Jeremy's election will be vastly diminished".

"This year Liverpool's Labour council intends to cut nearly £5m from children's centres, over £1m from disabled children and young people, £2m from disabled adults' day centres, a total of £42m from adult social care, and £2.5m from maintaining our parks and open spaces".

"Roger Bannister says: If Labour refuse to implement any further cuts and campaign for resources to reverse the vicious cuts made against the old, the disabled, the library services, and the rest, I will immediately withdraw my candidacy... But if Labour won't lead that fight, then TUSC and I will".

So what was left after the censor's pen was applied? All references to 'Liverpool Labour', 'local Labour' and 'Liverpool's Labour council' were removed. And if you couldn't mention Labour, the offer to withdraw if they were prepared to fight became meaningless.

What the Electoral Commission said

The TUSC national steering committee made formal complaints to the Returning Officers in Bristol and Liverpool but did not receive satisfactory replies. Both disputed the charge of censorship.

Bristol council's reply referred to 'counsel's advice' they had taken but, when asked to release this, said that they were not in a position to do so.

Liverpool's Returning Officer was more direct. There may have been 80 Labour councillors in the city who voted for cuts but he interpreted a reference to 'Liverpool's Labour council cutting services' as a reference to Labour's Liverpool Mayoral candidate Joe Anderson and that was that! Like Humpty Dumpty said in Alice Through the Looking-Glass, "when I use a word it means what I chose it to mean, neither more nor less".

So TUSC asked the Electoral Commission: would it be within the legal power of a Returning Officer to make a contrary judgement to that made in Bristol and Liverpool, namely that a reference to the actions of councillors sitting under a party label is not necessarily 'material referring to any other candidate' in a Mayoral election contested by individuals?

To which, with all the caveats that 'the Commission has not provided any more specific guidance to Returning Officers on this point', the answer was yes, it is for each Returning Officer to decide. There was no legal bar to the Returning Officers allowing mention of other political parties in Mayoral election addresses.

Humpty Dumpty dismissed Alice's objections to his interpreting words according to his own ends. "The question is which is to be master, that's all", he said.

But he couldn't have complained if he had been called out for censorship - and nor can the Bristol and Liverpool council Returning Officers.

The original drafts of Tom Baldwin's election address (a one-page and a two-page version as legally required) are available at http://www.tusc.org.uk/txt/376.pdf

The final version as printed in the Bristol Mayoral Election booklet is available on the council website at https://www.bristol.gov.uk/documents/20182/477936/lBristol+Mayoral+candidates+booket+MASTER/1c3c51d0-4af9-42ff-96fb-d5d7ada3942f

The original drafts of Roger Bannister's election address are available at http://www.tusc.org.uk/txt/377.pdf

The final version as printed in the Liverpool Mayoral Election booklet is available at http://www.tusc.org.uk/txt/385.pdf