It’s polling day. Voters across the country will cast their ballots in local elections in England, Wales and Scotland as well as in pivotal Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. The results of today’s elections will shape Boris Johnson’s prospects as leader and provide a clue as to whether Keir Starmer has any hope of becoming the next prime minister.
Both sides are desperate to lower expectations. Speak to Labour and they’ll tell you how worried they are. The same with the Tories. As the results come in, expect a partisan scrap to set the narrative.
Why is this important? Take last year’s elections. Labour’s loss in the Hartlepool by-election came early on and seized the news agenda. It showed how far Labour still had to go to win back Red Wall seats, and undermined Starmer’s leadership. Later on, Labour’s success in Wales barely registered. How the results are spun will have serious consequences for both party leaders.
Beyond the spin, what would a good night look like for the two main parties? It’s important to remember that today’s seats were last up for grabs in 2018, when Labour did relatively well compared to the Tories, who were embroiled in Brexit rows. As a consequence, most seats up for election today are Labour. That means it’s harder for Labour to make those headline-grabbing gains. Nonetheless, we could be witnessing a Labour fightback in the Red Wall if they simply hold on to council seats in places such as Hartlepool. Labour will also want to make gains in London, where they have an opportunity to take totemic councils such as Wandsworth.
Other races to watch include the “Blue Wall” Tory seats in the south, where the Lib Dems could do well. Fending off those losses while continuing to take seats in the north would be a sign that Johnson’s rickety electoral coalition has got some life in it yet.
In Scotland, all council seats are up for grabs. The SNP’s hegemony over Scotland means the battle will be for second place, not first. At the last elections in 2017, Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives surged to second place on the back of a strong unionist message. If Labour manage to pip the Tories to second, this would be significant.Labour’s decimation in the 2015 election deprived them of vital seats; their chances of winning a majority in a general election would increase with a revival in Scotland.
The most consequential elections could be in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin are predicted to be the largest party for the first time since the Good Friday Agreement. Such a result would embolden demands for a referendum on Irish unification and stoke unease among unionists. It would also raise the prospect of further deadlock in the Northern Irish Assembly. The DUP – which may not even come second, with some polls putting them level with the cross-community Alliance party – have not committed to proposing a deputy first minister if Sinn Féin win. Without cooperation from the DUP, Northern Ireland’s government could remain inert at a time when renewed tensions over Brexit look likely.