Mixed Fortunes Expected as Britain Gears Up for Super Thursday
An unprecedented number of seats are up for grabs in local and regional elections in the UK on Thursday. Although it will be difficult to point out clear winners and losers, it is likely that the elections will have a profound effect on the political landscape for the years to come.
On Thursday 6 May, the UK will open the polls for a set of local and regional elections in England, Scotland and Wales. Brits from different corners of the country can cast their votes for the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, the by-elections for the parliamentary seat of Hartlepool, the London Assembly and 143 local councils.
In total, more than 5.000 seats are up for grabs during the “Super Thursday” elections. This number is unprecedented, mainly because all votes due in 2020 (such as the London mayoral elections) were postponed until this month because of the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic still affects the campaigns, as door-to-door canvassing was only allowed from mid-April onwards and there are still no rallies or street activities.
The government’s handling of the pandemic will also play an important role in the elections. Although there has been a "vaccine bounce" after the successful rollout of jabs, many voters have still not forgotten the Conservative government’s initial failure to reduce the spread of the virus. The elections are also the first ones after the signing of the Brexit deal earlier this year and will give an indication of its reception by parts of the population.
More broadly, a few flashpoints can rock the political landscape on the national level. Especially the elections in Scotland and the by-election in Hartlepool could have a strong effect on the national debate and have the potential to shape the political narrative towards the next general election.
Most attention will probably go to the election for the Holyrood, Scotland’s parliament. The main issue at stake is the desire of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) to have another independence referendum. This has led to fierce competition between the parties that want Scotland to stay part of the UK and those who strive for an independent country.
Looking at the polls, there is no question about which party will win. The SNP holds a firm lead in the polls and is projected to get around half of the votes. Closest competitors Labour and the Conservatives are trailing at about 20% each and the Liberal Democrats are expected to get approximately 7%.
The real question is whether the SNP will get an overall majority in parliament. This would strengthen the case for another referendum, creating new trouble ahead for British Prime Minster Boris Johnson, who has so far opposed the possibility of a new independence vote. Johnson argued that the 2014 referendum was a once-in-a-generation event, but this position will be difficult to maintain if the SNP gets the majority of the votes.
An additional complication is the rise of a new pro-independence party, Alba, founded by former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond. A strong performance for Alba could bolster the pro-independence movement, but it can also split the vote.
Another election to watch out for is the parliamentary by-election in England’s northeastern constituency of Hartlepool. Situated in the “Red Wall”, Hartlepool is a Labour stronghold that has voted Labour since 1964. However, times are changing and following the Conservatives break down of the Red Wall in the 2019 elections, Hartlepool could well be another brick that is about to fall.
Polls currently give the Conservative party 50% of the votes, with Labour at 33%. A defeat for Labour could be viewed as something of a personal humiliation for Labour leader Keir Starmer, who has tried to turn the tide on the party's fortunes. Labour was still able to win Hartlepool in both 2017 and 2019 under Starmer’s predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, and losing it now would mean Starmer’s strategy could come into question.
The elections for the Welsh parliament, the Senedd, could worsen Labour’s woes. Several polls indicate that Labour, for the first time since the devolution of powers in 1999, faces a challenge from the Conservatives to become the biggest party. Meanwhile, the nationalist Plaid Cymru party is campaigning for independence for the first time, although it is unlikely that it will get a decisive share of the vote. These will also be the first elections in which 16- and 17-year-olds can vote, which could give some indication of what the future holds in store.
With a record number of 20 candidates running for London City Hall, it is widely expected that voters will re-elect incumbent mayor Sadiq Khan (Labour). Khan has a double-digit lead of Conservative rival Shaun Bailey and is on course for a comfortable win. The Liberal Democrats also have a strong candidate in 33-year old, former MEP Luisa Porritt. Although unlikely to win the battle for the capital’s mayoralty, she led a strong campaign that saw the Liberal Democrats climb to 8% in the polls, up from 4,6% in the previous elections. With a programme that includes proposals for a London apprenticeship hub, a taskforce to reinvent the high street and a rent relief fund for small businesses, the Lib Dems seem to have found new momentum in London.
As the UK is gearing up for Super Thursday, we can expect mixed fortunes for all national parties. Much will depend on the interpretation of the results, although they will surely have repercussions at the national level. With elections coming up in 2023 or 2024, this is likely to be the first stage of the new cycle and the results could affect the political narrative for the years to come.
Jeroen Dobber is European Affairs Manager, UK Expert and Head of the Security Hub at the European Dialogue Office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Brussels.