Local and regional elections in the UK: Liberal Democrats make solid comeback
Elections were held on Thursday 5 May in 144 out of England’s 333 councils, all seats in Scotland’s 32 local authorities, all seats in Wales’ 22 local authorities and all seats in Northern Ireland’s parliamentary assembly. It was the biggest test of UK political opinion since the General Election in December 2019 and was hailed by many as a make-or-break election for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
In fact, the results give little clear indication of where UK politics in heading. The government lost, but the opposition failed to win. The Conservatives, whose leader Boris Johnson is no longer trusted even by Conservative voters, were given a drubbing, especially in London; but probably not badly enough overall to presage the end of Johnson’s leadership. Labour did well in many areas; but not well enough to convince people that its chief Sir Keir Starmer can lead it to victory at the next General Election. The Liberal Democrats had a very good night and are starting to build back strongly from their calamitous defeat in 2015, but are increasingly having to contend with competition from a rising Green Party. North of the border, the Scottish National Party was rewarded with a net gain in seats which it did little to deserve, and Labour overtook the Tories to become the second party in Scotland in terms of the popular vote. Sinn Fein made history by winning more seats in the Stormont Assembly than any other party, but the voters of the province also gave a huge boost to the Liberal Democrats’ sister Party the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.
One thing that can be deduced is that nationalism – whether English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish – remains a potent force. The glue which holds together the United Kingdom is more brittle than at any time in the past 250 years. Another is that Brexit is no longer the salient issue in UK politics, though it continues to cast a large shadow over the economy and over the politics of Northern Ireland. A third is that Keir Starmer, though admirably qualified, fails to inspire and that his party will not win national office simply by not being the Conservatives. The votes cast last week reflect Labour’s thin lead (of about 5%) in recent national opinion polls. The party’s chance of winning a governing majority at Westminster seems as elusive as ever, but the SNP appears likely to remain the third party and a coalition government to hinge on Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for another referendum on Scottish independence.
For Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey, a net gain of over 200 local councillors seems a fitting reward for the patience and resolve he has shown in his efforts to restructure and rebuild the party. While the party took many seats from the Conservatives in the so-called ‘blue wall’ areas of southern England it showed its ability also to break through in urban areas like Hull and rural areas like Westmorland in northern England, in Powys in Wales and in Scotland’s capital Edinburgh where it doubled its number of councillors. Turning that success into seats at Westminster, however, remains a major challenge. And while the Party is well ahead of the Greens it is still some way behind Labour and Conservative.
For Naomi Long, leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, Thursday was a day to cherish. The Party gained nine seats to win a total of 17, behind the Democratic Unionists on 25 and Sinn Fein on 27. While Sinn Fein has the right to nominate the First Minister, the Alliance party is now the major power broker between it and the DUP. For the EU, however, the frustrations of the Northern Ireland protocol are set to continue: the DUP has said it will refuse to allow the power-sharing government to resume until the protocol is scrapped.
A detailed report on the election results in English can be found at The Guardian.