The 2021 local elections – high stakes and unsure fates

With their 2020 counterparts postponed a year due to the COVID crisis, the 2021 local elections have become an unexpected bumper edition of the UK’s usual annual democratic process. With many areas of the UK going to the polls, the elections are important in determining who is running Scotland, Wales, and many cities and council areas across England, and as a major snapshot of the mood of the country.

The elections to the Scottish Parliament threaten to deal a decisive blow to the integrity of the Union, with the Scottish National Party stating that they will interpret a majority victory as a mandate for a second independence referendum. While there is no legal mechanism by which Holyrood can compel the UK Government to grant a second referendum, an overwhelming SNP victory will put huge pressure on Westminster. With polls indicating the SNP are on the verge of the absolute majority they crave, this will undoubtedly be the race to watch.

Savvy political observers will also be keeping a close eye on the Welsh Senedd elections, where Labour looks likely to be re-elected, but pro-independence Plaid Cymru have been surging in recent opinion polls and could break into second place.

In England, there will be a focus on the “Red Wall”, the great swathes of the North and Midlands that flipped to the Conservatives at the last general election, some for the very first time in their history. The results in these regions will be key in determining whether the first-time Conservative voters of 2019 are beginning to feel buyers’ remorse or are prepared to keep faith, as the Government tries to deliver on its promises to ‘level-up’. Like so much in politics, the picture we see will likely be somewhat in the middle. A good Labour showing in the Red Wall would be taking the West Midlands and Tees Valley mayoralties from the Conservatives, and holding Hartlepool in the parliamentary by-election. Likewise, Conservative victories in these three races would indicate a strong night for them. The most recent polling of the Red Wall, conducted in late March by JL Partners, showed the Conservatives leading Labour on 47% to 43%, compared to 2019’s 48% to 39%. National polling averages show a roughly similar picture, with the Conservatives holding a healthy lead, albeit smaller than the one they enjoyed in 2019.

Elsewhere in England, while many of the Mayoral races seem a foregone conclusion, most notably with Sadiq Khan expected to return to City Hall in London, there is an intriguing marginal contest in the ‘West of England’ Mayor race, currently Conservative held. In the local elections, large county councils are the biggest prize, with Labour hoping to win back some areas they lost last time around, such as Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Police and Crime Commissioner elections tend to be low turnout affairs although with the ‘supplementary vote’ system there can be surprises. Most PCC counts are scheduled for next Monday.

Whilst these elections are not likely to result in leadership changes from the major Westminster parties, both the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, are thought to be planning Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet reshuffles in the aftermath. Starmer is thought likely to move quickly, while Johnson allies are briefing that he will wait until June. For the Prime Minister, this will be his first reshuffle since February 2020, and should he feel emboldened by a strong set of election results, is likely to see Education Secretary Gavin Williamson dismissed from government, very possibly to make room for the return of figures such as Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid. Meanwhile, Downing Street has indicated that several female ministers, including Minister for Care Helen Whately, Universities Minister Michelle Donelan and Safeguarding Minister Victoria Atkins, will be promoted as part of a wider effort to improve female representation within the Government.

For Labour leader Starmer, who hasn’t carried out a major reshuffle since becoming leader in April last year, a reshuffle would represent an opportunity for a political reset after what is expected to be a difficult set of elections for Labour. Shadow Chancellor, Anneliese Dodds, is thought to be most at risk, with Westminster insiders tipping her to swap positions either with Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Rachel Reeves or Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy. Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper have also been tipped for a return to the Shadow Cabinet, with Shadow Justice Secretary David Lammy, Shadow Minister for Mental Health Rosena Allin-Khan and Shadow Domestic Violence and Safeguarding Minister Jess Phillips among those reportedly likely to be promoted.

Local elections may not have the allure of their general election counterparts. There won’t be a new government on Friday morning and a Prime Minister’s political fate will not be sealed. But they can undoubtedly tell us a lot about the national political picture, giving voters a chance to register their satisfaction or let off steam. With Labour’s political recovery and the integrity of the Union just two of the issues at stake, this promises to be a set of local elections like no other.

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Luca Ingrassia