Analysis by Kirsten WILLIAMS
The most important votes before the next general election have been held across the UK in the last week. The results have changed the political landscape of Scotland, Wales, and England. But what do the losses and gains actually mean for the government, the opposition and the UK?
The Scottish National Party (SNP) has clearly established itself as Scotland’s first party, winning its third election in a row. Under the charismatic leadership of Nicola Sturgeon, the party recovered immediately from the defeat of the Scottish independence referendum to gain wide-ranging appeal. With 63 seats – two seats short of an outright majority- the SNP will form a minority government. Though rumours are swirling about another independence referendum, Sturgeon has so far denied any intention to stage a rematch.
One party’s gain means another party’s loss, and in Scotland it was Labour which came a sorry third place after the Conservatives. Jeremy Corbyn insisted that Labour was still “hanging on” in Scotland, and certainly it was not the total wipe-out that some predicted. However, Labour slipping to third place behind the Tories would have been unthinkable a few years ago. As one analyst pointed out, Labour is unable to decide a clear position on Scottish independence, thus losing the ballots of pro-independence voters drifting towards the SNP, and on the other side Unionists who favour the stronger anti-independence stance of the Scottish Conservatives.
Some commentators have remarked that, in many ways, the result in Scotland was the best possible outcome for the Tory party: knowing that they would never unseat SNP, the Conservatives will have wished for a reasonably good number of seats for the Conservatives, but more importantly a defeat for Labour. Not such a crushing defeat that Corbyn would be forced to resign, but enough to leave the controversial left-winger in charge of a fractured and divisive party. As far as the Tories are concerned, he is doing far more to damage Labour’s reputation by himself than they could do.
As in Scotland, the Welsh Assembly will soon be welcoming a new raft of lawmakers, this time from Plaid Cymru and UKIP. Labour remained the strongest party in the Welsh Assembly, and is expected to form a minority government this week. However, the party surprisingly lost a seat in Rhondda to Plaid leader Leanne Wood.
What of the Liberal Democrats, long a contender for the third party across the UK? The Welsh Lib Dem leader Kirsty Williams won her seat to become the last remaining representative in the Senedd, but announced her resignation as the party’s leader, accepting responsibility for their weak performance.
UKIP are likely thrilled with their result: for the first time seven UKIP Assembly Members will sit in Cardiff. These include two Conservatives who ‘crossed the floor’ and kept walking – Neil Hamilton and Mark Reckless. That points to the increasingly anti-EU sentiment sweeping across Wales, and will embolden the Brexit campaign in this part of the UK.
The Conservatives will be less pleased with their performance in Wales. They were pushed into third place behind Plaid Cymru and failed to win their target constituencies. Andrew Davies, the Welsh Tory leader, has so far held on to his leadership, but a discussion of future strategy this week may lead to a shake-up.
In Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionists (DUP) repeated their historic success of the 2011 elections, winning 38 seats in Stormont. The republican Sinn Féin party lost one seat to take 28 places, a surprise outcome after many predictions that Sinn Féin might become Northern Ireland’s first party. For the DUP leader Arlene Foster, in post for only six months, it is a clear mandate to govern.
DUP is not the only party celebrating in Northern Ireland. The Greens and the People Before Profit Alliance (PBPA) won two seats each, challenging the established parties. The Ulster Unionists – Foster’s former party before she defected twelve years ago – managed to retain their 16 seats, while the nationalist Social Democrat and Labour Party (SDLP) lost two. The Ulster Unionists are now preparing for what their leader has called “a personnel change” after a difficult campaign.
After a bitter election campaign between ‘shady Sadiq’ and ‘nasty Zac’, Labour is again victorious in the London mayoral race. Khan, a former lawyer, minister and campaign manager for Ed Miliband’s Labour leadership race, secured a comfortable victory over Zac Goldsmith. Much has been made of Khan’s background as the son of a Pakistani bus driver. While Khan will be held up as a BAME success story, inside his party he has been criticised for a lack of vision and opportunism; he supported Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign but quickly distanced himself from his party chief when he began to mount his mayoral challenge. Khan will now elaborate on his plans for housing, transport, environmental policy and policing when he takes office.
Though the London mayoral elections took much of the media spotlight in England, English council and police commissioner elections were also held. Although Labour suffered some defeats, far more council seats were lost by the governing Conservative party, bucking media predictions. Importantly, Labour were able to win key councils in southern England, giving the left wing of the party hope that their leader is not as divisive as they feared.
UKIP failed to capitalise on the Conservative civil war over Brexit and Labour’s internal divisions. Whether this will be reflected in the referendum of the 23rd of June is unsure. It does perhaps point to a lack of confidence in UKIP’s ability to govern effectively – and with Labour and Conservative politicians coming out in support of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, perhaps one-issue voters have been persuaded back to the mainstream. The Lib Dems were surprise winners of the English council elections – they were the only party in England to win a council, and they saw the biggest rise of all in the number of council seats.
Shake-ups and unexpected changes of power have been recorded across the UK in the last week. It is clear that populist parties are increasingly seen as credible political entities; however, they remain for now on the fringes. Corbyn’s Labour did slightly better than expected but he still must convince his party and constituents of his politics. The Conservatives and the DUP will be generally pleased with their performance, as will newcomers UKIP, the Northern Irish Greens and the PBPA. We have learned from experience that it is impossible to predict an election, but the votes have provided us with a snapshot of the political mood of the UK less than three months before the referendum of a generation takes place.