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LONDON — Britain goes to the polls on Thursday in a set of local and regional elections that will take the political temperature in Britain and include a number of dramatic showdowns.
From a Scottish Parliament election that could make or break the drive for Scottish independence, to a by-election in northern England that could compound the woes of the opposition Labour Party, there will be a number of flashpoints that define the political narrative ahead of the next general election in 2023 or 2024.
The number of seats up for grabs, at more than 5,000, is unprecedented. There will effectively be two-years’ worth of elections, since votes due in 2020, including the London mayoral election, were delayed due to the coronavirus crisis. All in all, seats on 143 English councils are up for grabs, plus 129 Scottish Parliament seats, 60 Welsh Assembly seats, 25 London Assembly members, 13 directly elected mayors, 39 police commissioners and a Westminster by-election for the Hartlepool constituency.
Most of the seats were last contested in 2016, when the two main parties were level-pegging in the polls, and 2017, when the Tories had a big lead, which will make the ultimate results difficult to read.
Elections expert and Conservative peer Robert Hayward said it makes more sense to look at the results on a geographical basis, to see whether the parties are making gains or losses in key battlegrounds, than to pay too much attention to the overall numbers. All eyes will be on Scotland and on the so-called Red Wall — an area in the north and midlands of England where the Conservatives picked up long-held Labour seats at the last general election in 2019.
Meanwhile, coronavirus continues to disrupt proceedings. Numerous declarations are being carried out in batches to maintain social distancing between candidates, meaning the results will drip in over four days. Parties have been unable to campaign on the ground as much as normal, which has left them uncertain about what the results will look like and means they might struggle to get their voters out on the day. Meanwhile, higher numbers of voters have cast their ballot by post.
“All politicians have a worse feel in late April than I’ve ever known,” said Hayward.
Polls open at 7 a.m. on Thursday May 6 and will close at 10 p.m. The coronavirus and the number of votes going on around the country mean the counting and results process will be quite a slog. Some races intend to declare overnight in the small hours, but most won’t start counting until Friday.
Colchester, Derby, Dudley and parts of Essex are among the councils expected to do overnight results, as well as the Hartlepool by-election and the Doncaster mayoralty race.
The vast bulk of councils are expected to declare during Friday and Saturday, but some will go into Sunday, while a number of police and crime commissioner posts won’t be announced until Monday. All the timings below could end up changing depending on how things go.
And the winner is…
In Scotland: The SNP will take any kind of majority as a mandate for a fresh independence referendum, whether that means an outright majority or a collective majority with the Scottish Greens, who are also pro-independence. But if the SNP fails to get an outright majority its opponents north of the border and in Westminster will argue the independence debate is dead. Even if the SNP does get an outright majority, Boris Johnson is not expected to agree to a fresh referendum. Expect the Westminster government to look at all the voting data to spin the outcome against accepting a mandate for a referendum, for example by saying fewer than half of all Scots voted for independence parties, as well as insisting the 2014 referendum was a once-in-a-generation vote. With the SNP expected to win big, this constitutional fight will continue.
In England: If Labour loses the Hartlepool by-election and slips back in Red Wall councils it will be seen as a dire night for leader Keir Starmer and will prompt more soul-searching about his leadership ahead of the next general election. Starmer will also face criticism if Labour fails to take the West Midlands and Tees Valley from the incumbent Conservative mayors, and it would be a significant setback to lose the new West Yorkshire mayoral race. The Conservatives would be expected to lose seats at this stage in a parliamentary cycle, so if they can hold their ground or even make gains it will be seen as a good night for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and if they take Hartlepool or West Yorkshire it will be seen as a big coup. Who wins the most council seats overall is harder to interpret from a national perspective, but both parties will spin a bigger number as a great victory.
In Wales: If Labour manages to get over the line for an outright majority in Wales it will be a significant victory, but just holding steady would be a success. A good night for First Minister Mark Drakeford would be seen as a translation of his popular handling of the coronavirus pandemic into electoral support. The Conservatives will hope to make gains after falling to 11 seats in 2016. Watch out for the constitutional angle in Wales too, after the pandemic highlighted the structures of devolution. Nationalists Plaid Cymru are expected to make gains and could end up in a deal with Labour to run the administration. But keep an eye on support for anti-devolution candidates too. Support for Welsh independence and support for abolishing the Senedd (Welsh Assembly) have both crept up in the polls. Translation into the national vote could indicate that Wales is on a path to its own full-blown constitutional battle.
The future of Scotland: The biggest touchpoint out of all the contests will be the Scottish Parliament elections. The Scottish National Party wants an outright majority as a mandate to press Westminster for a fresh Scottish independence referendum. The polls suggest the SNP will win big, but the question is by how big? If they need the Greens to prop them up in coalition or worse there is no overall majority of independence-friendly parties, the case for a second referendum will be damaged. Meanwhile, political observers will be eager to see how former SNP leader Alex Salmond fares in the list vote with his new Alba party.
The details: The Scottish elections offer people two votes. One is for a constituency MSP, where the winner is the candidate who gets the most support. The other is for a party at a regional level, which tops up the seats and makes representation more proportional. The constituency votes will be declared in batches over Friday and Saturday, with the regional results coming soon after. It should be possible to get an idea of how the SNP has done as the results come in, but the final picture won’t be in place until late on Saturday.
High stakes for Labour: Another important race to watch will be the Hartlepool by-election, the only Westminster seat up for grabs, after Labour MP Mike Hill quit ahead of an employment tribunal for sexual harassment allegations. Paul Williams is hoping to retain the seat for Labour, but it is all to play for after one poll put the Conservatives in the lead. A crucial factor will be what happens to the former Brexit Party vote. Will it split more to Labour or the Tories? If Labour loses the seat it will be a blow for leader Keir Starmer and further proof that the Conservatives are extending their reach in so-called Red Wall seats in the North and Midlands that were instrumental in the Tories’ 2019 election victory.
The details: Hartlepool will be decided under the usual first past the post system for Westminster constituencies, where whoever gets the most votes is declared the winner. Expect the result around 5 a.m. on Friday morning.
Can Conservative mayors hold on? The two mayoral races to look out for are in the West Midlands, where Conservative incumbent Andy Street is facing a challenge from Labour’s Liam Byrne, and in Tees Valley, where incumbent Conservative Ben Houchen is up against Labour’s Jessie Joe Jacobs. The Tories won both in 2017 when the party enjoyed a bigger gap over Labour in the polls, so retaining the seats will be a harder task now, and another indication of whether the Conservative presence in the Red Wall is here to stay.
The details: Both posts are elected via the transferable vote system, whereby voters give a first and second preference and candidates need 50 percent either outright or once second preferences are counted to win. In Tees Valley there are only two candidates anyway, so it will be decided on the first count. That result should come in late afternoon on the Friday, while the West Midlands mayor result is not expected until between 2 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.
New fight: The other mayoral races around England are expected to deliver fresh terms for the incumbent parties. But a new post in West Yorkshire could be an interesting watch. Labour MP Tracy Brabin is the favorite to win the first mayoral election, but there is a chance the Conservative candidate Matt Robinson could pip her to it. That would be a big upset for Labour. “If Labour were to win only one of the West Midlands, Tees Valley and West Yorkshire, it will be West Yorkshire,” said former YouGov president Peter Kellner. “That’s the one which will be toughest for the Tories to win, but they might do it.”
The details: The West Yorkshire race uses the same transferable vote system as the other mayoralties. The result should come Sunday afternoon or evening.
Senedd, sealed and delivered: In the Welsh Assembly (Sennedd) election, all eyes will be the fortunes of the Labour administration. Could it increase its seat share and clinch a majority, or fall back and be forced to call on the nationalist Plaid Cymru to prop it up in government? Meanwhile, there is a chance the Liberal Democrats will lose their single seat. An extra element of unpredictability has also been thrown in, with 16- and 17-year-olds given the vote for the first time.
The details: The Senedd electoral system is the same as in Scotland. Counting will begin on Friday and expectations are that it should all be done by the end of the day.
In the capital: The question in London is how badly the Conservatives do, with candidate Shaun Bailey trailing incumbent Labour mayor Sadiq Khan by a wide margin. The city gets harder for the Tories to win as time goes on, with experts arguing the party is unlikely to hold the post again until it is out of government at the national level. Don’t forget there are assembly seats being voted on too — for the members who keep a close eye on what the mayor is up to.
The details: The mayor is elected via single transferable vote, while the assembly members are made up of directly elected district representatives and a top-up list system. Half the direct election results will be announced on Friday and half on Saturday, while the mayoral result and list results will come on Saturday evening or possibly Sunday morning.
Watching the wall: There are plenty of interesting races to keep an eye on around England — but the overall focus on election night will be whether the Conservatives look to be tightening their grip on Red Wall seats. Election expert and Conservative peer Robert Hayward noted that more Tories are standing in Red Wall councils than in past elections, but whether those nominations can be converted into seats is another matter.
Conservative inroads: In Rotherham (final results at noon on Saturday,) Sandwell and Sheffield (final results for both on Friday afternoon,) the Conservatives have no councillors but will be looking to secure some after winning MPs in the areas in 2019. The Tories will also want to make gains in places like Barnsley, Doncaster and Wakefield (all of which will get results during Friday, with Wakefield coming in the evening), where they have some councillors and made 2019 Westminster gains but Labour has majorities. Likewise, if Labour can hold the Tories off in these places it will be good news for leader Keir Starmer.
Neck and neck: In Dudley, the council is tied on 36 Tories and 36 Labour, and the Conservatives are hopeful of taking the lead after winning another seat there in 2019. The results will start arriving in the small hours of Friday morning for an early indication of how the Red Wall battle is looking.
The next battleground: Kirklees, where Labour is the biggest party but without an outright majority, will be an interesting one to watch. The Conservatives took two seats in the area in 2019, while a third is held by Labour MP Tracy Brabin, who will trigger a by-election if she wins the West Yorkshire mayoralty. Results should be in by around 5 p.m. on Saturday.
Conservatives on top: In Walsall there is a slim Conservative majority the party will be hoping to at least keep hold of, while Labour will be seeking to seize it. The results will come in between 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. on Friday. Labour will also be looking to end small Conservative majorities in Derbyshire (results on Friday), Lancashire (results on Saturday) and Northumberland, which were won when the Tories were riding high in the polls in 2017, plus in Nottinghamshire, where the Conservatives run a minority administration.
Don’t forget: It’s not all about fights between the Conservatives and Labour. In Cornwall, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats will be fighting for who comes out with the most seats, with the results by 6 p.m. on the Friday. In Hull, Labour has a majority it will want to keep the Lib Dems from stealing, with the results also coming on Friday night. The situation is similar in Sheffield. Elsewhere, the Lib Dems are also hopeful about taking control in St Albans (result in the early afternoon on Sunday), while the Greens have their eye on Solihull, which would be their second local authority in the U.K. after Brighton.
Speaking of Greens: Peter Kellner reckons the Greens could be a wildcard at the local elections and might do well. If they take support from Labour it will help the Conservatives in races around the country.
How to watch
BBC News: The BBC News channel will cover the overnight results on May 6, before broadcasters Huw Edwards and Kirsty Wark host an election special from 9 a.m. on Friday May 7. Reeta Chakrabarti will announce the results to viewers as they come in, alongside polling expert Professor Sir John Curtice. Edwards and Wark will be split between London and Edinburgh, while BBC One Wales and BBC One Scotland will also host dedicated results programs. The election special will continue into Saturday, with Jo Coburn hosting before Edwards and Wark take over again.
Sky News: Journalist Jonathan Samuels will present the overnight coverage between Thursday and Friday, including the Hartlepool by-election and some of the early councils. Sophy Ridge and Dermot Murnaghan will present evening programmes on Friday and Saturday to cover the main portion of results, with veteran broadcaster Adam Boulton up in Scotland.
ITV: There’s no special election show from ITV but the News at 10 team will be broadcasting from Scotland each night through the week.