'Newspaper-style' local election campaign letter causes controversy

Lib Dem leaflet

A Welwyn Hatfiled Lib Dem leaflet and the Welwyn Hatfield Times - Credit: Supplied/ Archant

A newspaper-style campaign leaflet has been delivered by the Welwyn Hatfield Liberal Democrats to voters across the borough. 

The Lib Dem leaflet features similar characteristics to this newspaper, namely a big 'News', like the 'Times' in the WHT, and a smaller Welwyn Hatfield.

Malcolm Cowan, Liberal Democrat group leader and a Peartree councillor, on the railway bridge. Picur

Malcolm Cowan, Liberal Democrat group leader and a Peartree councillor, on the railway bridge. Picure: Malcolm Cowan - Credit: Malcolm Cowan

The leader of the borough's Lib Dem group Malcolm Cowan, whose party is competing in county, borough and police and crime commissioner elections this year, did not see any issues with this style of campaigning. 

Cllr Cowan said: "As regards the style of the publication, it is hard to see anyone would confuse it with the appearance of the Welwyn and Hatfield Times - the title, layout and use of colour is so different.

"If anyone did think there was a similarity, we would take it as a compliment."

But journalism group, the Society of Editors, has raised concerns about these types of tactics being used in elections.

The industry group said in 2019: "If a politician or their party can attempt to deliberately mislead you by cloaking their partisan messages in the disguise of an independent and trusted local newspaper, what else are they attempting to camouflage?"

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And to this Cllr Cowan said: "And as far as I know, the Society of Editors has never circulated its views to us.""

Welwyn Hatfield Labour leader Cllr Kieran Thorpe. Picture: Supplied by Cllr Thorpe

Welwyn Hatfield Labour leader Cllr Kieran Thorpe. Picture: Supplied by Cllr Thorpe - Credit: Archant

His Lib Dem group was also under fire during a recent full council meeting on February 1 on their leaflet drops continuing despite the lockdown. 

A question was asked by the Labour leader Cllr Kieran Thorpe, which was read out as the Welwyn Hatfield councillor did not attend the meeting. He wrote: "Does the leader agree with me that given the severity of coronavirus in our area, that it was entirely right for political parties to suspend campaigning activities, including leaflet deliveries to ensure the safety of residents and to safeguard efforts to drive down infection rates?”

Cllr Tony Kingsbury is the council leader at Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council. 

Cllr Tony Kingsbury is the council leader at Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council. - Credit: WHBC

The Conservative leader of Welwyn Hatfield, Cllr Tony Kingsbury, responded by saying it was a "shame" that one of the parties at the council, the Lib Dems, had not suspended activities. 

He added: "The Government’s view is that these restrictions do not support door to door campaigning or leafleting by individual political party activists - I know both your and my party have suspended these activities during heightened restrictions, but I am aware of reports that this isn’t true of every party in this council."

Cllr Cowan told the WHT: "The delivery that was being referred to was paid for delivery, which is clearly permitted. Had either leader bothered to ask, we would have told them. Instead, they collaborated to try to invent a story that had no legs."

His party's Westminister leader Ed Davey also stated that leaflet drops were entirely within the law. 

According to the BBC, Sir Ed said: "The guidance says there is an exemption for volunteer organisations, we've taken legal advice on that," he said.

"The advice we've given to all our councillors and volunteers is they need to wear a mask, they need to socially distance, they need to sanitise their hands."

Welwyn Hatfield's Cllr Kingsbury also said during the meeting: "While the campaigning activities of political parties are not a matter the council has any powers or duties over, I agree that like the council is doing, all organisations should take all necessary COVID safe steps to ensure that every one of us is kept safe and avoids the spread of this dreadful infection.

"While there seems to be an element of interpretation of the rules, the intention of the ‘Stay at Home’ message, even with the exceptions listed, would seem to prohibit such activities."

Chloe Smith, minister of state for the constitution and devolution, has also written to political parties urging them not to campaign during this period. 

She said in a letter to political parties: "The Government’s view is that these restrictions do not support door to door campaigning or leafleting by individual political party activists.

"It is widely accepted that voters can continue to get campaigning information remotely. In order to reduce transmission of COVID-19 infection, door to door campaigning at this point in time is therefore not considered essential or necessary activity."

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