Written by IDU Assistant Chairman Alec Shelbrooke, United Kingdom.
On Thursday May 6th, voters in the United Kingdom will cast their votes in a series of local authority elections. Uniquely this year, it will be only the third time in a century that every voter in the country will be able to cast a vote at the same time, outside of a General Election.
Local government elections take place on the first Thursday of May every year, but each authority works on a different electoral cycle. Some authorities elect one third of their representatives over three years for a four-year term of office, and others simply hold one all-out election every four years.
Depending on which local authority you fall under will depend on whether you have an election or not each May. However, the postponement of the 2020 local elections, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, means every authority will now hold an election this May.
This will therefore be a significant election to watch and analyse.
The 2019 General Election saw the Conservative Party smash though the solid Labour constituencies in the North of England. This is often referred to as the “Red Wall”, on account of these constituencies having been represented by Labour – whose party colours are red – for decades. Labour took these seats for granted and it became clear over the years that voters in these areas were more aligned to the basic principles of the Conservative Party, despite traditional voting patterns delivering results for Labour.
That all changed with Brexit. At the 2015 General Election, there were huge swings from Labour to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the previously rock-solid Labour areas. In my own constituency, 65 per cent of Conservative voters voted remain in the 2016 referendum, but over 90 per cent of Labour voters voted to leave. It was therefore not a surprise that when UKIP didn’t stand candidates in the 2017 General Election, a huge number of those former Labour voters didn’t return to Labour, who were ambivalent about honouring the EU referendum result; instead they came straight across to the Conservative Party.
This should have been a warning bell to Labour, but their continued resistance to the referendum result culminated in traditional, lifelong Labour voters, opting for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party in the last General Election.
The question now is: how well is that support holding up?
Although every voter in the United Kingdom will have elections in their area this May, it does not necessarily follow that a similar picture to the General Election will emerge due to typically lower turnouts at local elections.
Additionally, at the General Election there was clear momentum and support behind Boris Johnson and people knew they could make a difference to the Brexit blockage in Parliament. The option at a local authority election is not a binary one; many areas in the North of England are still dominated by Labour in local government and on a lower turnout, with only a third of representatives up for election in some areas, voters do not always see the relevance in trying to change the political make up of their council.
The analysis of the results will, however, be key. In the traditional Labour seats that now have Conservative MPs, winning will not be enough for Labour; vote share will be everything. If the Conservative Party can show a significant increase in its share of the vote and close the gap to Labour in the electoral areas we wouldn’t have stood a chance in just five years ago, then it would be fair to say that progress is still being made for the Conservatives.
The starkest results will be in the mayoral elections in the West Midlands and the Tees Valley; areas where the Conservative Party, on paper, should not have been able to win, but now have Conservative Mayors with a strong record in office and who stand a good chance of being re-elected.
But local elections in the UK aren’t always about local issues. The Government’s record will clearly be a contributing factor in these elections and despite a terrible year battling the global pandemic, conventional wisdom would dictate that the government would be unpopular. Yet opinion polls suggest otherwise.
The success of the vaccine rollout has not only seen people credit the Government with the efficiency of its vaccination programme, but it has shone a light on the view that, despite the inevitable criticism any government would receive during a crisis, a vast majority of people believe that the Government was doing its best in the most challenging of circumstances, especially when compared to our near neighbours in the European Union.
In April 2020, less than a month into the pandemic, Labour elected a new leader; someone far more credible than Jeremy Corbyn. As a result, the gap between Labour and the Conservatives immediately started to close in opinion polls and the two parties were level-pegged by December 2020. But with the success of the vaccine rollout and because the new Labour Leader has offered nothing constructive to the debate over the pandemic, the polls are once again opening to a 6 to 10-point lead for the Conservative Party.
Such a lead in the opinion polls is rare for a governing party, especially after a crisis. Yet the Government now embarks on its biggest electoral test since the General Election: a parliamentary by-election in the constituency of Hartlepool; a seat that has only ever returned a Labour MP, but where the Conservatives closed the gap to a 9 per cent majority at the last election. This election will not be about whether the Conservative Party wins the seat or not, (although a victory would be an incredible endorsement of the Prime Minister and the Government), instead the percentage share of the votes will be critical.
If Labour’s result is worse than that achieved under Jeremy Corbyn, then a win simply won’t be enough to steady Sir Keir Stammer’s leadership; the hard left in the Labour Party will be sharpening their knives ready for a leadership challenge.
The full analysis of the result in this by-election will have long lasting repercussions, not least as to whether the newly formed Reform Party – formed out of the now defunct ‘Brexit Party’ – is able to maintain any reasonable proportion of the vote share now Brexit is an old issue. The leader of the Reform Party, former MEP Richard Tice, just happened to be the 2019 General Election candidate for the Brexit Party in Hartlepool and he took almost 25 per cent of the vote; so it’ll be interesting to see where those votes land this time.
Finally – and perhaps most significantly for our European friends, specifically in Spain – the result of the Scottish Parliamentary Election will be of significant international importance.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) have declared for several years that if they get an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, they will have the moral and constitutional right to hold a new independence referendum to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom and back into the European Union. The SNP is currently one seat short of an outright majority and are in power with the support of the Scottish Green Party. With recent scandals hitting the former SNP Leader, Alex Salmond, and involving the current SNP Leader and First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, the chances of the SNP holding their current seats are less than losing them.
And at the eleventh hour – as it always the case in British politics – Alex Salmond has thrown in a surprise announcement with the launch of a new pro-independence party, Alba (the Gaelic word for Scotland). Due to the proportional representation electoral system which includes a regional top up list, Alba only needs to get around 6 per cent of the vote in the regional lists to gain at least five seats from Unionist parties, such as the Conservatives or Labour; giving what pro-independence voices are claiming will be a “super majority for independence”.
If this happens, the constitutional argument will be whether there is a moral obligation on the Westminster Government to grant a legally-binding referendum, or whether we’ll be able to argue the point that the SNP’s demand was that they should be allowed a referendum if they themselves got an outright majority.
I suspect leaders of the pro-independence movement in Scotland will still push ahead with a referendum, even though the results would be irrelevant to the law of the land without the consent of the Westminster Government; nevertheless, out of all the different elections happening in the UK on May 6th, Scotland’s result will potentially have the furthest reach international because of its consequence to separatist movements across Europe.