One may reasonably expect that Thursday’s elections are more about who collects the bins and fills the potholes than anything else, and they would be partially correct. But as with almost any western democracy, the state of the country writ large is never far away from peoples’ minds when they can their ballot. In addition to local elections across England and Wales, which present a very real threat to Boris Johnson’s leadership, Scotland will once again express its views at the ballot box with scandals in Holyrood and Westminster influencing events in addition to the ever- present debate around independence. More impactful still, is the Assembly election in Northern Ireland. Voters will elect a new Assembly which may deliver Sinn Fein the most seats, depriving a unionist party of that status for the first time in the 101 year history of ‘the province’.
Yes, the bins need to be collected, but verdicts will be rendered on a whole range of issues including Boris Johnson’s beleaguered premiership, Sir Keir Starmer’s progress as Labour Party leader, the devolved governments of Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, the Northern Ireland Protocol, and perhaps the future of the Union itself. Setting aside the big picture for a moment, here are three electoral subplots which readers might like to follow when the results are fully reported in about a week’s time.
Lessons from Doug Beattie
Just days away from a critical election in Northern Ireland, and the likelihood of a Sinn Fein First Minister looks high. At the same time, it is possible that Ulster Unionism will attract more votes and/or more seats than in 2017. As always with the “Single Transferrable Vote” (STV) system, the final outcome will be defined by the second, third, fourth etc. preferences of voters, which tend to limit communities dividing or ‘wasting’ their votes, which in turn, usually limits the damage incurred by the largest sectarian parties. In terms of first preference voting intention, however, we are seeing a sustained increase in those unionists opting for the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV).
The TUV are a more radical offshoot of the largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), founded by ex-DUP MEP, Jim Allister in 2007 in opposition to the DUP sharing power with Sinn Fein and thus making former Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) Commander, Martin McGuinness Deputy First Minister. While the DUP and TUV have tried to out-extreme one another and make constitutional issues paramount in the campaign, Doug Beattie has taken his unionists in a different direction.
After more than a decade-and-a-half of decline from the primary party of unionism to relying on second or third preferences as a consequences of being a “DUP-lite” party, Beattie saw a gap in the electoral market in the form of lapsed unionists, anti-Brexit unionists, socially liberal unionists, and young people from unionist families who did not feel comfortable with the label. These groups were turned off by the DUP’s extremism, and many had moved towards the non-sectarian Alliance and Green Parties. Adopting a forward looking and progressive vision of a “Union of People”, Beattie is pro-gay marriage, unashamed to share the British, Irish, and Northern Irish aspects of his identity, and opposes the DUP invoking procedural nuclear options like dissolving the Northern Ireland Assembly to achieve policy goals.
This has drawn a clear line in the sand between Beattie and the DUP-TUV axis, which has helped to attract the aforementioned groups, and may also draw preferences from non-sectarian voters. This group is the fastest growing in Northern Ireland and they are overwhelmingly secular, socially liberal, cosmopolitan, and pro-EU. They detest sectarianism and constant constitutional warfare. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), who are the second largest party in favour of Irish unity have had more success with this group than the UUP thanks to their social liberalism, but Beattie’s pragmatic and liberal campaign may well see these voters consider the UUP, particularly in North, East, and South Belfast as well as constituencies like North Down and Upper Bann, where non-sectarianism has been strong at the ballot box. Furthermore, Beattie has still emphasised the future of the union in his campaign and while there has been some prevarication, he continues to oppose the Northern Ireland protocol. As such, while the UUP may lose a few transfers from some ardent loyalist voters due to their liberal social pragmatism, they will still get the baulk of second/third/fourth/etc. preferences from DUP and TUV voters, which would probably have happened regardless of the UUP’s strategy.
In this election, Beattie has essentially campaigned on disarming and turning down the temperature. In an election which may result in a First Minister whose father was an IRA prisoner and in which many unionists feel that a border has been erected with Great Britain without their consultation, this is extremely brave. It would have been easy for Beattie to close ranks within unionism, but he has instead decided to branch out. Admittedly, STV makes this far easier, given people’s ability to list preferences. Still, if Beattie gains one or a few more seats for his party, his example may provide a blueprint for restoring some civility and understanding in politics.
In the United States, people are constantly exposed to mutual escalation and blame games;
“Jackson is well-qualified, why are you attacking her integrity? You’re a bunch of obstructionists”
“This is no different than what you did to Barrett, or when you tried to ruin Kavanugh’s life”
“What about Garland?!”
“What about Thomas and Bork?!”
It’s not just central to Supreme Court battles, its also present in live controversies over political retaliation for unpopular speech, gerrymandering, and the filibuster. Some arguments may be more valid than others, but the point is that trying to settle historical scores and focusing on negative partisanship don’t actually help anyone. Perhaps there is someone willing to step up and be America’s Doug Beattie, but would there be an electoral opening?
Scottish Labour: Overdue a Comeback
In 2019 we saw seat after seat across the Northern and Midland heartlands of the Labour Party fall to the Tories for the first time in a long time, if not ever. For example, Tony Blair’s final victory in 2005 gave Stoke-on-Trent North’s Labour MP, Joan Walley, a majority of 10,036 votes or 32.6%. Fourteen years later, her successor, Ruth Smeeth lost the seat to Conservative Jonathan Gullis by 6,286 votes or 15.7%. This is the type of place where it is said that they used to weigh Labour votes rather than count them, but these were not the first labour heartlands to fall.
While Labour votes were being weighed in Stoke, the scales were also being prepared in Glasgow, where MP Mohammad Sarwar cruised to re-election with a majority of 8,531 or 30.4% in the newly created Glasgow Central seat, with the Scottish National Party (SNP) a lowly third behind the Liberal Democrats, with whom they split the anti-Iraq War protest votes. Just ten years later, Mohammad had just resigned from a stint as the Governor of Pakistan’s Punjab region and his son Anas lost his old seat to the SNP’s Alison Thewliss by 7,662 votes or 19.4%. The Sarwar stranglehold in central Glasgow which had last since 1997 was swept away along with 40/41 Labour seats in Scotland. It was this shift that first made the chances of a Labour House of Commons majority very remote, two years before Theresa May and Boris Johnson began to turn the heads of the party’s Brexit supporting voters.
Since then, the leadership of Kezia Dugdale saw further significant losses in 2016’s Holyrood election, where the party was relegated to third place in Scotland behind the SNP and Conservatives. In 2017’s local elections, the damage was limited by the STV system allowing unionists and left-wing nationalists to transfer votes to Labour, but it was still a grim picture. A glimmer of hope emerged in 2017’s snap election, when Labour held their remaining bastion in Edinburgh South and regained six seats across the industrial “central belt”, but it did not last.
Having once again returned a solitary MP in the form of Edinburgh South’s Ian Murray, Jeremy Corbyn’s catastrophic defeat had clearly taken Scottish Labour back to square one. This and the leadership of Corbynite Richard Leonard seemed to disprove the notion that a hard-left Scottish Labour would make progress, and he was succeeded by our old friend Anas Sarwar, now a regional MSP for Glasgow.
The last time Labour were in a strong national position for local elections in Scotland in 2012, the party was firmly on the decline, with Johann Lamont having to steady the ship after Ian Gray’s dismal performance in 2011’s Holyrood election. Labour limited the damage by absorbing some votes from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats (then partners in an unpopular Westminster coalition) and holding firm in most of the central belt, but were still overtaken by the SNP. At the time, the SNP were growing in confidence after winning an unlikely majority at Holyrood, which paved the way for 2014’s independence referendum. While Labour’s vote share and seats did increase, the Scottish party lagged far behind their English and Welsh colleagues, with Ed Miliband harnessing the Cameron-Clegg government’s unpopularity to take 32 Councils and over 800 Council seats.
Despite Theresa May’s General Election collapse just 35 days later, she was at the peak of her powers when ballots were being cast in the 2017 local elections. This national environment further dragged Scottish Labour’s vote, as the Conservatives were able to build on their second place in the previous year’s Holyrood election, despite being the Westminster incumbents. But this year is different. Scottish Labour have probably hit rock bottom, their leader is popular, the national party is comfortably ahead in the polls, the SNP are involved with yet another scandall, and the Scottish Conservatives are being forced to defend their unpopular Westminster government without the electoral behemoth that is Ruth Davidson.
As the results begin to pour in, we likely won’t see Scotland reporting because like Northern Ireland, their local elections use STV. Later on, however, interested watchers should keep an eye on the results for councils in Glasgow City, North Lanarkshire, Inverclyde, Edinburgh, and Midlothian. The first ask for Labour will be to knock the Conservatives out of second place and the second will be to put dents in the SNP’s strongholds across the central belt. Those five councils should tell us whether Anas Sarwar and his team have succeeded.
Look at the Maps, not the Numbers in England
As Boris Johnson bounces from one crisis to another, Sir Keir Starmer has guided Labour into a fairly consistent polling advantage. Despite the possibility of Durham Police defanging Starmer’s attacks on the Prime Minister for breaching lockdown rules, there is a broad consensus that Labour will make gains in this election. How many? Estimates very, but I will be watching out for where Conservative losses come as opposed to how many losses there are.
This is because just under half of seats up for election are in London, where Labour are already dominant, and the Conservatives are only on defence in a handful of areas. Barnet, Hillingdon, Wandsworth, and Westminster will be the main areas of Tory deference, while local circumstances in Croydon and Harrow raise the possibility of Conservative gains. The Liberal Democrats also hoping to expand outside of their South-West London stronghold, focusing their campaign on Merton, the home of Wimbledon. The Tories are declining in most parts of London and gains from Labour, the LibDems, and Greens would not be surprise, it’s the rest of the country that represents a more pressing concern to Boris Johnson.
The last time these seats were elected in 2018, Jeremy Corbyn looked a real threat and Theresa May was leading a rudderless party, but still Labour gains in London were mitigated by Conservative gains in the north and midlands at the expense of UKIP, following on from 2017’s General Election and a sign for things to come in 2019. The Conservatives will want to see damage limitation in traditional swing councils like Redditch, Peterborough, Plymouth, and Derby, while solidifying their position or even gaining seats in “Red Wall” areas of 2019 success like Bolton Rossendale, Hyndburn, Wakefield, and Coventry, while testing the limits of their northern appeal in Sheffield and Leeds.
If Labour can gain in places like Barnet, while holding strong and fighting back against the Conservatives in the North and Midlands, then Boris Johnson will be under serious pressure. If gains are limited to London, questions will be asked of Sir Keir’s performance to date.