UK Local Elections Will Have National Consequences

The United Kingdom on May 6 will hold local and regional elections covering over 5,000 seats, including local councils, mayors, and national elections for the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales (Northern Ireland’s assembly elections are scheduled for 2022). This high number includes some elections that were rescheduled from 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is the United Kingdom’s first trip to the ballot box since its full departure from the European Union and will be a barometer for: (1) the ruling Conservatives’ (and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s) popularity; (2) the electoral recovery of the opposition Labour Party; and (3) the extent of fragmentation in the Union.

The results will likely paint a mixed picture, which observers can interpret according to their preferred outcome. On one side, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been praised for the swift rollout of the Covid-19 vaccine after a disastrous beginning. The abundance of economic stimulus amid the pandemic has allowed his government to hide Brexit’s initial economic hit. On the other side, Johnson has been under intense scrutiny in recent weeks over multiple accusations of cronyism or “sleaze,” including asking donors to fund a flat refurbishment and childcare. This has tempered enthusiasm for his performance. 

These accusations against Johnson and other party members over corruption allegations are handing Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer more ammunition, resulting in a recent rise in national polls for the opposition party. It is unclear how much these developments will shift the vote toward Labour so close to the election, which focuses more on parties’ local appeal than national reputation. Should Labour continue to lose support in the north, particularly in its traditional strongholds, Starmer will face increasing pressure from his party to justify his leadership position. However, should Starmer’s focus on Johnson’s appearance of impropriety and mismanagement (rather than Brexit) pay off and stem Labour’s electoral hemorrhage, it could breathe new life into his leadership. Polls suggest the former outcome may be more likely, as the post-Brexit political reconfiguration makes its way to the local level.

However, a more worrying trend in the long term is the significant stress Brexit has placed on the Union. Violence broke out in Northern Ireland in April; the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) is on track to gain an outright majority; and in March, support for Welsh independence reached its highest level ever before dipping again in recent weeks. London is only beginning to grapple with these centrifugal forces, hoping to build literal bridges (or tunnels) to connect England with Scotland and Northern Ireland and offering additional funds. But it may be too little too late.

Devolved Assemblies in the Spotlight

In 1997, under Prime Minister Tony Blair, voters supported the creation of “devolved assemblies” in Scotland and Wales, with the Northern Ireland assembly following suit in 1998 after the Good Friday Agreement. This change granted some powers of decision to the constituent countries’ elected bodies in areas such as education, agriculture, and—crucially during the pandemic—health. Scotland already enjoyed some devolved powers over education before 1997 and gained more after the failed independence referendum in 2014, as a way for London to induce opposition to Scottish independence. Other competencies remain in the hands of the parliament in Westminster.

The United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union rekindled Scotland’s drive for independence, as did the perception that Scottish authorities managed the initial phases of the pandemic better than the central government (although data suggest the outcomes are not so different). Recent polling shows the “yes” and “no” camps are tied at around 50 percent (not counting undecideds). This is down from a high of 56 percent in 2020 as SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has been affected by allegations of mishandling of harassment complaints against a former SNP leader, though she was cleared of wrongdoing. Regardless, there will likely be a slight majority for pro-independence parties and new calls for a second referendum.

A more surprising development surfaced in Wales in March, where a poll showed 39 percent of people would support independence, primarily due to the UK government’s poor handling of the initial phase of the pandemic. Though this is down to around 28 percent today, the Covid-19 crisis has shone a spotlight on devolved powers in the healthcare field. Whereas attention to political developments in Cardiff is usually low, Labour’s Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford is now the most popular politician in the nation, thanks in part to his handling of the pandemic. Support for Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru is also on the rise and could gain enough votes to form a coalition with the Labour Party.

Boris Johnson’s (Charm) Offensive

The slow fragmentation of the Union had, for a long time, not seemed to concern the prime minister—despite his additional title of minister for the Union—who was solely focused on “delivering Brexit.” This is changing: a new “Project Love” aims to strengthen the Union by emphasizing its benefits, including through a shared prosperity fund (from London straight to local constituencies) that would replace EU funding and an intense media blitz against independence efforts.

This project risks looking like a flurry of panic steps, similar to former prime minister David Cameron’s response to the first Scottish referendum. Indeed, an independent review for the government has called for deeper changes rather than cosmetic moves. The project’s initiative to train civil servants about the workings of devolution (now nearly a quarter-century old) raises questions about whether the government understands the depth and immediacy of the challenge. Only six months ago, Johnson reportedly called devolution in Scotland a “disaster.” This helps explain why Johnson, who is extremely unpopular in Scotland, did not campaign there. Tellingly, Scottish Conservative Party leader Douglas Ross stated that Johnson should resign if he were found to have violated the ministerial code over ethics violations.

The Conservatives’ and Johnson’s political fortunes look a bit brighter in England, where they shattered Labour’s “red wall” in 2019 and could take more seats away from the center-left party in the north. Johnson’s party leads national voting intentions by at least five points, and Labour has failed to seize on the economic impact of Brexit. However, these five points are the narrowest gap in three months between both parties in national polls. Election results will trickle in slowly over the days following the poll, muddying the picture and placing pressure on parties to draw immediate conclusions that benefit their narrative.

One thing is clear, however: the United Kingdom itself will continue to be under pressure for years to come. For Scotland in particular, the great irony of Johnson’s tenure is that while he opposes Scotland holding a second independence referendum, his premiership was cemented over repeated appeals for the United Kingdom to secure independence from the European Union. This irony may well show in the polls on May 6.

Donatienne Ruy is an associate fellow with the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Heather A. Conley is senior vice president for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and director of the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Donatienne Ruy
Director, Executive Education and Abshire-Inamori Leadership Academy, and Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Heather A. Conley