UK elections to test national mood, strength of union
Dubbed ‘Super Thursday’, local and regional votes come as the UK is on the path to pandemic recovery and as talk of Scottish independence simmers.
The United Kingdom is braced for local and regional elections that will deliver a report card to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government and test the strength of the country’s centuries-old union.
Ballots will take place in England, Scotland, and Wales, with some 48 million people eligible to vote for candidates vying for more than 5,000 positions of power.
A seat in the UK Parliament, local council seats, and the entirety of the devolved Welsh and Scottish assemblies are among the most significant political positions and bodies that will be decided on.
Polling centres will open at 7am (06:00GMT) and close at 10pm (21:00GMT).
Results of a few races will be declared during the early hours of Friday before the rest are announced over the following three days.
Politicians and analysts, keen to gauge the electorate’s mood, will be watching the outcomes closely.
The elections come at a fragile time after the UK’s final exit from the European Union and as the nation works to recover from one of the world’s deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks.
Constitutional crisis brewing
Among all the races on so-called “Super Thursday”, the Scottish Parliament elections, which threaten to unleash a major constitutional crisis for Johnson and his ruling Conservative Party, are of utmost importance.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is pressing for a second vote on independence within a decade.
Her Scottish National Party (SNP) is seeking the second-ever outright majority in the 129-seat legislature in a bid to bolster her push.
But any legally binding poll would require sign-off from Johnson’s government, something the premier has signalled he would refuse.
Pre-election polls have indicated the SNP will win the election comfortably, but the majority Sturgeon wants is not guaranteed.
“There’s no doubt that if the SNP scores a massive win, it’s going to put the wind in their sails in terms of an independence referendum,” Tim Bale, a professor of politics at the Queen Mary University of London, told Al Jazeera.
“Not necessarily immediately, but in the next couple of years, they will be able to claim a mandate for it.”
The SNP lost outright control of the Holyrood assembly in 2016, two years after 55 percent of Scots voted against Scottish independence in a referendum that was billed as a “once in a generation” poll.
But calls for a rerun of the 2014 vote have grown in the wake of Brexit and the UK government’s handling of the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, which many viewed as chaotic.
Recent opinion polls have suggested most Scots are now in favour of seceding and, even if the SNP fails to sweep a majority on Thursday, it and other pro-independence parties are expected to scoop most seats in the Scottish Parliament, meaning the rally for a second referendum is unlikely to fade away.
That is likely to spell trouble for Johnson.
While he is staunchly opposed to another independence vote, he may find the mounting momentum for such a ballot increasingly difficult to resist going forward.
To a lesser extent, the prime minister is also facing down fraying ties in Wales, where the pro-nationalist Plaid Cymru party is set to make gains in the 60-seat devolved assembly and could come to take up a junior role in a post-election coalition with the Labour Party.
Such an outcome may indicate that Wales is edging towards its own moment of constitutional reckoning, piling the pressure on Johnson, who is desperate to avoid the UK’s union unravelling on his watch.
‘Red wall’ battle resumes
In England, attention will focus on the race for Hartlepool’s parliamentary seat and a swath of local council elections in former Labour strongholds that switched to Johnson’s ruling Conservatives in the December 2019 general election.
Then, Brexit upset electoral battle lines as some of Labour’s traditional base were angered by the opposition party’s perceived lack of commitment to making the EU divorce work.
Although it did not change loyalties in 2019, a defeat now for Labour in Hartlepool, a northeast port town that has been won by the party at every election since 1964, would represent a huge blow for the party’s leader Keir Starmer.
Starmer, who succeeded Jeremy Corbyn after the 2019 vote, has put restoring support in Labour’s traditional heartlands at the top of his agenda, pledging to rebuild the party’s so-called “red wall” in the Midlands and north of England.
But the Conservatives could be on course for a sizeable victory in Hartlepool and the right-wing party is again well-placed to make inroads in a number of traditionally Labour-dominated local councils, according to polls.
“We are expecting the same sort of patterns we saw in 2019 to now play out on more of a local level, with the Conservatives starting to gain seats in areas previously considered solid Labour areas,” Chris Curtis, a senior research manager at polling company Opinium, told Al Jazeera.
While the results may shed some light on the extent of England’s electoral realignment, both Curtis and Bale cautioned against assigning too much significance to the outcomes of local ballots, which often see low turnouts.
“Local elections are a useful straw in the wind, but I don’t think they are the be-all and end-all,” said Bale. “Looking at them is fun to do, but can be quite misleading.”
He and Curtis pointed instead to opinion polls as a more accurate barometer of the nation’s political mood, and recent polls have suggested Starmer’s Labour is closing in on the Conservatives.
Johnson’s government had enjoyed a popularity boost in the early part of this year over the UK’s rapid COVID-19 vaccine rollout, but that appears to have been knocked by a recent bout of allegations concerning the prime minister being involved in “sleaze”, as well as accusations of ministerial cronyism.