On 6 May, voters across the UK—or more accurately, due to the absence of any elections in Northern Ireland, across Great Britain—will go to the polls for the first time since Boris Johnson’s (CON-ECR) landslide victory in the December 2019 national parliament election. The postponement of all scheduled elections in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in two electoral cycles being combined into one day, leading several commentators to dub this as Britain’s ‘Super Thursday.’
Voters will elect two of the UK’s three devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales, the mayor and regional assembly in London and a host of local elections across England. This includes 12 mayoralties and 148 local authorities, comprising around 5,000 local councillors in total. For an introduction to each of these elections and an explanation of what is at stake in the UK, read on for our full preview.
Scotland forms the largest of the UK’s devolved administrations. Since coming to power in 2007, the Scottish National Party (SNP-G/EFA) has governed as two minority governments and, after a shock landslide victory in 2011, one majority government. The party now aims to extend this success into a new decade by securing a fourth successive term in office and perhaps even a second majority government.
As in most recent elections, Scotland’s constitutional status has played a prominent role. The SNP seeks a mandate to hold a second referendum on independence during the next five-year parliamentary term, citing Brexit—a decision Scottish voters rejected—as a ‘material change of circumstances’ from the last referendum in 2014. Polling also suggests increased support for independence, indicating Scots are now evenly balanced on the issue—though support appears to have fallen back slightly throughout the course of the election campaign. The Scottish Green Party (SGP-G/EFA), a separate party from the Green Party of England and Wales (GPEW-G/EFA) whose presence in the outgoing parliament ensured a pro-independence majority, also supports a second referendum in the next five years and have consistently polled ahead of their 2016 result.
Scotland’s largest opposition party, the Conservatives (CON-ECR), have once again put opposition to independence at the centre of their campaign. This time, the party is struggling without its former popular leader Ruth Davidson. Her successor, Douglas Ross, is not having a great campaign, which has included a controversy about past comments towards Scotland’s Traveller community and his approval ratings take a hit. The party is also harmed by the enormous unpopularity of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Scotland, who is not campaigning in Scotland—polls consistently show Scots disapprove of Johnson by a ratio of over two-to-one. Johnson insists the UK government will not grant permission to hold a referendum even if pro-independence parties win another majority.
The other leading anti-independence parties, centre-left Labour (LAB-S&D) and the Liberal Democrats (LDEM-RE), also hope to put a dent in the SNP’s support. Labour’s new leader Anas Sarwar has made a good first impression with the electorate and is now the only other party leader besides Sturgeon to consistently record positive approval ratings, though this has yet to translate into any big improvement in Labour’s polling figures.
The election has also witnessed the last-minute emergence of a new pro-independence party led by Sturgeon’s predecessor as First Minister and SNP leader, Alex Salmond—the Alba Party (*). This comes after a long-running dispute relating to the Scottish Government’s handling of sexual harassment complaints against Salmond. Accused by the SNP as merely a vehicle for Salmond’s personal vendetta against Sturgeon, Alba has leveraged splits within the SNP over the question of independence strategy and has attracted support from critics of greater transgender rights. Salmond is staggeringly unpopular in Scotland, polling below even Boris Johnson, but enjoys support from a small minority of Scots from whom Alba may garner enough support to win a handful of seats.
Scotland uses a version of mixed-member proportional representation which sees voters elect a first-past-the-post constituency representative and compensatory regional list representatives to provide a degree of, though not absolute, proportionality. Despite losing ground in recent months, the SNP is still expected to win a landslide in the constituency vote, possibly even winning an overall majority through the constituencies alone. The regional list vote paints a more pluralistic picture with a stronger presence for both the Greens and Alba while the Conservatives and Labour battle for second place. While the SNP are still firmly ahead, their projected dominance in the constituencies will make it difficult for the party to win many list seats.
Barring a major polling error, Nicola Sturgeon is almost certain to be re-elected Scotland’s First Minister. Her popularity has dipped from its peak at the height of the COVID-19 crisis but she remains the most popular party leader in Scotland by quite a distance. As in the 2016 election, the key question is whether she will return to power with an overall majority or as a continuation of her minority government. With wide variation in the polls, both outcomes are feasible. There is also the outside possibility of a more formal governing arrangement with the Scottish Greens, though this would require approval from the latter’s membership. Either way, this next Parliament looks set to house a third, possibly record-large pro-independence majority, setting the stage for further constitutional battles with the British Government and Boris Johnson.
For virtually all living memory, Wales has been synonymous with the Labour Party. With strong support in former industrial and coal mining communities, Labour has won every single national election in Wales since 1922 (excluding European Parliament elections). This electoral dominance continued with the creation of the Senedd Cymru/Welsh Parliament in 1999, seeing Labour form every Welsh government in this period, albeit sometimes with the support of other parties. During the last parliamentary term, Labour governed with the sole Liberal Democrat member and one independent.
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, in office since 2018, hopes to be elected to his first full term. Like Sturgeon, Drakeford’s handling of the Covid pandemic has seen him enjoy a boost to his personal popularity. However, his path to re-election has been complicated by the political and constitutional realignments taking place across the UK. The Welsh electorate rejected the stance of Labour and then-First Minister Carwyn Jones by voting for Brexit in 2016. The resultant difficulties for Labour across the UK have been felt particularly strongly in Wales; in the 2019 UK national parliament election Labour’s lead over the Conservatives was reduced to just five points as the latter secured a record high result. Rising UK-wide support for the Conservatives in recent months also poses a challenge, as the pandemic focus moves from specifically Welsh devolved health policies towards the successful UK-wide vaccine rollout.
This period has also seen rising support for Welsh independence. Pro-independence Plaid Cymru (PC-G/EFA) cannot replicate the SNP’s argument of being forced out of Europe against the electorate’s will but the British government’s insistence on a hardline Brexit deal has alienated a meaningful portion of Welsh society. Polls put support for Welsh independence between 32% and 39% and it has been a topic of debate during the election campaign, providing a potential avenue for Plaid Cymru to make inroads into Labour’s support. However, this does not appear to be a major influence on voting intention, with Plaid’s average polling—at around 20%—not marking any great advance from past elections, and is well below stated support for independence.
Recent polls point to a historically close race. Wales uses the same electoral system as Scotland with a first-past-the-post constituency vote and a list vote to provide a degree of proportionality. Every poll during the campaign has shown a Labour lead, although the exact size varies by polling company from 11 points to 6 over the Conservatives on the list ballot. Plaid Cymru sits in a clear third place but has so far failed to develop any real momentum during the campaign. There is also close competition for fourth place between the Liberal Democrats, right-wing Reform UK, GPEW and the (self-explanatory) Abolish the Welsh Assembly Party.
The Welsh electoral system has an even greater imbalance towards the constituencies than Scotland, historically allowing Labour to stack up seats at higher proportions than its vote share would warrant. Assuming Labour maintains its first-past-the-post advantage, this should continue to provide some insulation against a fall in vote share, although this can only go so far.
As a result, Labour is likely to emerge the largest party though probably without an overall majority. Such an outcome would produce difficult negotiations between the parties. Both Labour and Plaid Cymru have ruled out a coalition with the Conservatives, while Plaid Cymru has said it will not be a ‘junior’ partner to Labour, as previously during the 2007-11 coalition between the parties. Yet, Plaid would certainly prefer a Labour administration to a Conservative one and so some form of arrangement remains possible. As such, either a weakened Labour minority government or a more formal and potentially fractious Labour-Plaid arrangement would appear to be the most likely outcomes.
It might be unfair to suggest that the London mayoral election, postponed from last year, is the least exciting of the UK’s elections this year, but there is very little doubt about the outcome: Sadiq Khan (LAB-S&D) is almost certainly heading towards a second term as Mayor of London. In every poll conducted since 2018, Khan has enjoyed a remarkable lead over his main opponent, the Conservatives’ Shaun Bailey. The Green Party of England and Wales and the Liberal Democrats both seem in a good position to improve their vote share from the last election in 2016 but remain firmly in a contest for third place.
London mayoral elections use the Supplementary Vote electoral system allowing voters to provide a first and second preference, which puts the top two candidates into an instant run-off. In the run-up to the election Khan seemed likely to win re-election through first preferences alone, a feat no candidate has ever achieved since the position of London Mayor was established in 2000. Polling has since narrowed during the course of the campaign, partly due to the impact of an eye-watering twenty candidates siphoning support from the main candidates, but even if the count does go to an instant second round between Khan and Bailey all polls suggest Khan would still win in a landslide with around 60% of the vote.
There are several explanations for Khan’s strong polling. Though Khan has not been without criticism during his time in office, Shaun Bailey has proved to be an almost universally derided alternative. Bailey has been accused of encouraging Islamophobia in his campaign against Khan – the first Muslim mayor of any Western European capital – of attacking London’s Muslim and Hindu communities and more recently of politicising the high-profile disappearance and murder of Sarah Everard, in addition to numerous other gaffes.
However, Bailey is also suffering from ongoing political realignments. While the Labour vote has collapsed in other parts of the country, UK national parliament elections have seen the party strengthen its hold on London and other urban centres which voted to remain in the European Union. Bailey’s controversial positions have undoubtedly held him back but most Conservative candidates would struggle in this environment.
It may be that more unpredictable results come from the simultaneous election to the London Assembly. Using the same mixed-member proportional election system as in Scotland and Wales but with a stronger degree of proportionality and a 5% threshold, no party has ever won a majority in the Assembly. With Labour’s vote share also up in Assembly polling, there is a possibility that the Assembly is on course to see its first overall majority—although, as with Khan’s hopes for a first-round majority, the possibility of this outcome appears to be receding as the Conservatives and especially Greens gain ground. The London Assembly is not a particularly powerful body, focused on scrutinising the elected Mayor rather than developing its own policy. Nevertheless, Labour winning its first ever majority or a decisive plurality would be a strong symbolic statement of support for Khan’s second term.
Finally, local elections are being held for mayoralties and councils (comparable to European municipalities) across England. These break down into the following, somewhat convoluted categories:
- 7 Combined Authority mayors (mayors of newly-created regional authorities
- 5 Single Authority mayors (mayors of individual local authorities).
- 21 County Councils (upper-tier authorities).
- 35 Metropolitan Borough Councils (unitary urban authorities, most of which are elected in thirds each electoral cycle).
- 28 Unitary Councils (unitary authorities, as the name suggests, some of which are elected in thirds each electoral cycle).
- 62 District Councils (lower-tier authorities, some of which are elected in halves and thirds each electoral cycle).
- 1 Council of the Isles (in the Isles of Scilly).
- 39 Police and Crime Commissioners across England and Wales (elected heads of police areas).
Feel out of breath? Me too.
England’s local government system has been continually reformed and tweaked since its creation in 1973 and therefore lacks the coherence and simplicity of other local government systems, even compared to elsewhere in the UK. From a national perspective, these elections are important only in the overall numbers they produce for the major parties as an indication of the current government’s popularity and the opposition’s ability to make inroads during the middle of a parliamentary term. One model by Electoral Calculus suggests that the Conservatives and Labour will both make gains at the expense primarily of Liberal Democrat and independent councillors, but with the bulk of the gains going to the Conservatives. As governing parties historically tend to lose ground in local elections, this would be a very good outcome for the Conservatives.
That said, some elections—especially the geographically-expansive Combined Authority mayoralties—can develop a wider significance. Andy Burnham, the prominent Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, is up for re-election in a vote that will be widely watched. The West Midlands and Tees Valley mayoral elections, both covering traditionally Labour areas which elected Conservative mayors in 2017, will also be noteworthy elections. The limited polling conducted for these races indicate decisive victories for the Conservative incumbents, providing further evidence of Labour’s struggles in areas it will need to regain support if it is to win the next parliamentary election in 2024.
A Bonus By-Election
6 May will also see the first parliamentary by-election since the 2019 national parliament election in the northern English constituency of Hartlepool. This was one seat in Labour’s ‘red wall’ which managed to withstand the Conservative onslaught in the 2019 and which also saw the third best in any constituency for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, on 26%. The by-election may be drowned out by the other elections but will provide another indicator of party support. Constituency polling is notoriously unreliable in the UK but has so far pointed to a similar trend prevalent across the rest of England outside of London: another decisive Conservative victory.
So what is at stake in these myriad elections being held across Great Britain? On one level, they could determine the very future of the Union. Another pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament will provide a further platform to make the case for a second independence referendum. While the prospects of a referendum will be complicated if Boris Johnson continues to refuse consent, there will be political costs to ignoring a parliamentary majority elected on this explicit platform. Wales is unlikely to see such constitutional drama but there are real and growing constitutional faultlines here as well which should not be underestimated.
More conventionally, the elections provide an opportunity for the parties to take stock of their current position. A good result for the Conservatives will solidify Boris Johnson’s position and approach to governing, perhaps allowing him to shrug off recent scandals relating to corporate lobbying and party donations. Likewise, these will be crucial elections for Labour leader Keir Starmer, who may come under growing pressure if his approach, premised on the promise of electability, is not seen to bring electoral success.
After a year of enormous loss, disruption and multiple lockdowns caused by COVID-19, voters will finally have an opportunity to express their views at the ballot box. The results will provide a crucial indication of the public mood across Great Britain as the UK hopes to finally move into its pandemic recovery.