The prime minister and home secretary were given warning that if they did not grant free mailshots for all candidates in the Greater London Assembly and mayoral elections the Representation of the Bill would be amended by the lords. This, potentially, could delay the passage of the flagship legislation aimed at encouraging - among other things - voter turnout.
Conservative and Liberal Democrat frontbenchers lined up behind an amendment when the Bill continued its committee stage. Although not moved, but with the promise it would be pressed to a vote at report stage if the government did not change its mind - it enabled opposition parties to spell out why they thought the decision not to grant a free mailshot to the capital's five million was undemocratic, or a plot to scupper Ken Livingstone if he stands as an independent, or both.
Conservative spokesman Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish said the detailed amendment should have the government trembling in its shoes.
'It will certainly be grossly unfair to anyone who stands in a constituency as an independent candidate without the backing of a party machine. I believe that the election expenses have been set reasonably high, but, frankly, I am told by the people who have carried out the calculation that of a political party had to pay for postage to the electorate, it would be exceeding the limit without doing anything else. The election expenses level will be swallowed up entirely if there is no free post and the parties are obliged to use the postal system', declared Lord Mackay.
Liberal Democrat Lord Goodhart said free mailshots had applied to all parliamentary elections since 1948. It also applied to Scottish parliamentary, Welsh and Northern Ireland assembly elections - all different bodies, with different powers and electorates. It did not apply to local government elections because, outside Birmingham which, for historic reasons has very large wards, few, if any, local government wards had more than 10,000 voters.
He added:'It is therefore possible for a candidate in town or suburban wards to deliver addresses in person within two or three days, except perhaps in thinly populated rural areas. In London elections, it would clearly be not remotely possible for any single candidate to deliver, and it would be impossible to rely on volunteers to achieve hand delivery of a leaflet. Even if there were willing volunteers, more and more Londoners live in blocks of flats, behind closed doors and entry phones'.
For a very large number of Londoners the only information which they received about an election was the poll card and the free mailshot. Now it was proposed there should be no free mailshot.
Liberal Democrat Earl Russell said: 'The highest number candidates have been expected to address without a freepost was in the GLC elections: it was between 70,000 and 80,000. The leap from those figures to over five million is a fairly steep step. The idea of personally contacting five million electors lacks credibility'.
Former Labour Party official Baroness Gould protested the matter was not raised during the passage of the Greater london Assembly Bill. 'The GLA Bill clearly laid down that the GLA was an arm of local government. No one thought then that there may not be a freepost, as there is not for local government. It was at that point that people should have considered trying to amend the GLA Bill to provide that it was not an arm of local government. The government are right to treat the GLA in the same way as they treat other areas of local government'.
Home office minister Lord Bassam said the government opposed the amendment because the London elections were local elections, and candidates at local elections did not have free mailshots. The GLC elections relied on local activism. But former GLC member Baroness Thomas of Wallisford said when she fought elections she did not have to cover all the five million electors throughout London.
Lord Bassam asked whether freepost should be available in other towns and cities as the mayoral system developed. The amendments were a blank cheque. For the government's proposed£10,000 deposit, mayoral candidates could demand a London-wide mailing to every elector - worth£750,000, to be paid for by the taxpayer. 'For a£10,000 deposit, a sharp business person wishing to make use of the system could secure London-wide publicity for his particular cause, obsession or business', said Lord Bassam.
He said if just 20 candidates stood for mayor, the amendment would cost£15m. He urged opposition parties to exercise restraint.
'They are encouraging the government of the day to spend£30 to£35m, maybe more, on a blank cheque to underwrite all political parties and all the others who wish to participate in this election, so that they can get a free post. We do not feel that that would be public expenditure in the best of public interest. We believe that the risk of abuse, coupled with the fact that these are local elections under local rule, would set a dangerous precedent for outside London', added Lord Bassam.
But Earl Russell said government could not argue these were local elections until it ceased to require deposits.