Covid must not get in the way of democracy – Angus Robertson

Because of the coronavirus outbreak, candidate selection for the Scottish Parliament elections and possibly the vote itself may need to be held in a different way than usual, writes Angus Robertson.

We may not be able to cast our vote in person at a polling station in next year’s Holyrood election if the coronavirus outbreak continues (Picture: John Devlin)
We may not be able to cast our vote in person at a polling station in next year’s Holyrood election if the coronavirus outbreak continues (Picture: John Devlin)

The second coronavirus wave is serious and will have a major impact on our day-to-day lives. Decision-makers have a hugely difficult task to get the balance right between public health to keep people safe but allow ‘normal’ life to continue and give the economy a chance to recover.

Amongst the challenges to normal society is the functioning of democracy itself. It is not easy. In the United States early voting has already begun in the presidential election campaign which will be finally decided in early November. The Democratic candidate Joe Biden is having to be imaginative to get his message across while respecting Covid-19 safety rules. As we have come to expect, Donald Trump is a rule to himself, and is holding large public rallies involving little or no social distancing or mask-wearing.

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Next year we have elections to the Scottish Parliament and before that our political parties have to select their candidates. For most, this involves the entire local membership being able to take part in the selection process however special rules have been brought in because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

I am currently seeking selection as the SNP candidate for my home constituency of Edinburgh Central, and together with other nominees am restricted by rules which are aimed at limiting direct contact with members. This leaves only online campaigning and limited email communication which is sent to members by party HQ. Online hustings will also be organised for members. Previous rules gave nominees access to contact information for SNP members and allowed face-to-face canvassing for support. That is clearly not possible in the current conditions.

To make myself accessible and easily reachable for members during the selection period I have launched an online meeting hub for Edinburgh Central SNP members. It is the first of its kind in the country. The system allows members to communicate directly with me by phone or Zoom call after booking an appointment through my website. A similar system was recently launched by SNP MP John Nicolson for online constituency surgeries.

With an SNP membership over 1,400 in Edinburgh Central I will spend quite a time speaking with undecided members who want to raise their priorities before casting their vote. Because of the restrictions allowing only outreach via websites and social media, it is important to be accessible to members and communicate effectively across all platforms.

Should I be selected and elected as the SNP MSP for Edinburgh Central, I intend to continue using the online system for constituent surgeries. Outgoing Tory MSP Ruth Davidson has an appalling track record for not holding publicly advertised surgeries and in contrast I want to be as accessible as possible for constituents. Modern technology can provide some communication solutions to the Covid-19 challenges we are going through. Rather than limiting our options to communicate effectively with members and voters we should be thinking about ways to increase them. After candidates are selected, the next question will be how can election campaigning proceed safely. Will it be ok to deliver campaign materials to people’s households? Can canvassing take place if social distancing is maintained? Will we cast our votes in polling stations or will it be safer to use postal votes for all?

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