Britons Vote in Key Elections, With Future of Scotland at Stake

Millions of British voters are taking part in local and national elections Thursday that are set to shape the future of the U.K., in a major test for Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his main rival, Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer.

Contests are taking place for the governments of Scotland and Wales, the Mayor of London and English local councils. In addition, Johnson’s Conservatives are targeting the town of Hartlepool in northeastern England, where a special ballot is being held for a seat in Parliament in Westminster.

The context for the “Super Thursday” votes -- the biggest election series outside a general election -- is challenging for both Johnson and Starmer.

The prime minister has been fighting claims of so-called sleaze in recent weeks, ranging from allegations he failed to comply with rules over political donations, to cronyism and incompetence in his handling of the pandemic.

The Tories have generally been ahead of Labour in recent national polls, buoyed by the government’s vaccine successes. But Johnson’s lead narrowed last weekend after official inquiries were launched into his behavior. On top of that, national polls are an unreliable guide to local elections, and turnout may be skewed if voters stay home due to the pandemic.

For Starmer, one year into his job as leader of the official opposition, the elections are also an opportunity fraught with danger. A poor set of results is likely trigger questions over whether he is the right person to rescue Labour, which hasn’t won a general election since Tony Blair’s last victory in 2005.

In Scotland, a strong victory for the pro-independence Scottish National Party of Nicola Sturgeon would reignite the debate over whether the U.K. should continue as a state in its current form, or whether Scottish voters should get another chance to decide if they want to break away.

Here’s a guide to where the voting takes place and what’s at stake:

Scotland

There’s one over-arching issue dominating elections to the Scottish Parliament: independence. Sturgeon’s SNP has been in power for 14 years, yet the focus is not on its record running the government in Edinburgh but whether Scotland has the right to another referendum on leaving the U.K. in the wake of Brexit.

Polls show the SNP is set for a big win again, and all eyes will be on the margin of victory in the 129-member parliament. The pro-independence Greens are tipped to do well and a parliament dominated by parties wanting to break away would increase calls for another referendum. Johnson has so far refused to grant one.

For Starmer, recovering some of Labour’s losses in Scotland would be a welcome signal that he really has a chance of ousting the Tories in the next general election. Labour’s new leader in Scotland, Anas Sarwar, is aiming to supplant the Conservatives as the biggest opposition to the SNP.

England

Contests are taking place to elect about 5,000 representatives in 143 local council areas around the country, as well as 13 directly elected mayors. These councils have power over local matters ranging from schooling to sports facilities, libraries and taxes on business and domestic properties.

At the moment, 47 of the councils up for election are controlled by the Tories, 54 by Labour and 6 by the Liberal Democrats.

London

Labour’s Sadiq Khan is seeking another term as mayor of the U.K. capital, and past polls have put him well ahead of any of the other candidates in the 20-strong field. Despite the Conservatives’ popular brand nationally, Labour retains majority support in London.

Hartlepool

The only parliamentary district up for grabs on Super Thursday, the northeastern town of Hartlepool has voted for a Labour MP every time since the seat’s creation in 1974. Yet polling in recent weeks suggests the Conservatives are on the verge of winning this by-election, in an area that backed Brexit by 70% in 2016.

It is rare for a governing party to gain a seat at a by-election, so a victory for the Tories would be a major coup for Johnson.

Wales

Voters in Wales -- who are electing the 60 members of the Senedd, the Welsh parliament -- will give their verdict on First Minister Mark Drakeford’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Welsh Labour, which has been polling ahead of the Conservatives, currently has 29 seats and governs with the help of some opposition politicians. The pro-independence Plaid Cymru has 10 seats, and is looking to capitalize on a recent increase in support for breaking away from the rest of the U.K.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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