Thursday, 5 May 2011

What can we expect from 'Super Thursday'?


It won't have escaped many people's notice - unless they're a political Rip Van Winkle - that today is one of the largest and more challenging set of UK electoral tests ever mounted outside of a General Election.

There are elections to the Scottish Parliament; the Welsh and Northern Irish Assemblies; most English councils; and the UK's second-ever national referendum. What will they hold, and what should we expect? I'm going to leave Northern Ireland out of the mix a bit here - except to add that the suspense there is about whether Sinn Fein will top the poll (unlikely) and thus nominate Northern Ireland's First Minister. It'd be a symbolic moment - but I'll blog about Ireland, North and South, next week I think.

So what to expect in Great Britain? As there are four elections, I thought I'd list useful numbers and targets to look for in each:

1. English locals: can Labour make 1,000 gains? The most respected experts on local authority by-elections and their relations to the national polls reckon that Labour should easily pass the 1,000 gains hurdle if their relatively strong position in national opinion polls is to be borne out on the ground. I think they might struggle. For one thing, just that lead in the polls has been melting away in recent days - an ominous sign as people actually approach the polling booth, and not the only way that the official Opposition resemble the years when they were led by Neil Kinnock. For another, Labour have had some trouble putting out candidates on the ground (being a councillor is an onerous job, after all), meaning that they can't reap the benefits of government policies everywhere they'd like. And lastly, the Lib Dems might do rather better locally than national circumstances suggest given the benefit of good candidates and incumbency. Many of their councils have bent over backwards not to make 'frontline' cuts. Tomorrow morning we'll be able to see if that was electorally worth it.

2. Scotland: can Labour prevent a pro-referendum majority at Holyrood? It looks pretty likely that there will now be a second term for the Scottish National Party government in Edinburgh, led by Alec Salmond. The SNP have been able to milk the First Minister's abilities and popularity to the full, and talk about 'speaking up for Scotland' at every opportunity - as well as pushing back their independence referendum. They've also been able to squeeze the Liberal Democrats and, to a lesser extent, the Conservatives in a classic anti-Labour drive. Labour might actually do better than the last Scottish Parliament elections tonight, but still be in Opposition and in a worse position than before. Labour's tight-knit and battle-hardened organisation might muddy the waters a little, and the polls do tend to overstate the SNP, but the party seems unlikely to have a plurality of seats on Friday. Two things to watch: do the Lib Dems come fifth, behind the Greens, on the regional list voting? And more importantly historically and constitutionally, do the SNP have enough votes in Parliament to push through an independence referendum? They'll need 65. If they have say 54 seats and the Greens six, they'll be just five votes away. If the Lib Dems have those votes, and they've been absolutely battered down to six or seven seats, what's to stop them doing a deal with the SNP and the Greens on that vote? If the SNP can somehow push towards going it alone (still unlikely), it will transform the entire British electoral battleground and make a majority Labour government unlikely - ever again. It's a lot of 'ifs', but it is now at least possible.

3. Wales: can Labour win an outright majority? Labour's never taken an absolute grip on the Assembly in Cardiff Bay. The best they did was 30 out of the 60 seats in the first Welsh Assembly election in 1999. If they can reach the magic number of 31 seats - and the polls suggest this is quite possible - then they'll at least have one complete, gratifying and pristine victory on the night. Win only 29, and the storm clouds over Labour's electability will loom ever more menacingly. Five out of the seven Welsh Conservative seats are at least vulnerable to a Labour surge here. They could be critical in preventing a Conservative majority government in 2015.

4. The referendum: how crushing will the defeat for 'yes' really be? A referendum on the Alternative Vote system, under which voters rank parties and candidates by order of preference, was the bottom line for Nick Clegg (above) when he took his Liberal Democrats into a coalition government with the Conservatives. If his cause gets completely obliterated by an avalanche of 'no' votes, he'll probably look even more foolish than he will if the margin is smaller. With every percentage point of his victory, David Cameron will look stronger and stronger. It was he who decided to take the gloves off and throw the Conservatives' money and kudos behind the anti-AV campaign. It'll be a personal triumph and a political masterstroke if he wins by a landslide. He'll have to throw his Lib Dem colleagues some bones of course, lest Clegg be ousted in an internal coup, but he can live with watering down NHS reforms, putting off the election of Chief Constables and reforming the House of Lords. A 'yes' vote would have led many in his party to conclude that he was a serial loser. A massive tide of 'no' will show that he's a winner. Full stop.

So to sum up - if Labour make only say 800 English gains, if the SNP look like they can have their referendum, if Labour fail to win an outright majority in Wales, and if the 'yes' campaign get completely buried in the referendum, there's going to be a big old party in No. 10. Make no mistake about it - if all four of those tumblers fall into place, the Conservatives can pretty much govern for as long as they like. Barring a 9/11 or Iraq-style 'Black Swan'-level event, of course, and one'll come along eventually, but it might be a decade or more away.

It's more likely that Labour will make some solid, if limited, progress - and begin to put their troops and tanks back on Conservative and Lib Dem lawns. They'll make between 800 and 1,000 councils gains; they'll build a blocking majority against SNP plans in Scotland; they'll seize sole control of the Assembly in Cardiff Bay; and the 'no' vote in the referendum won't be quite so conclusive as most assume. But William Hague also rebuilt his local power base and elected representation in 1997-2001, winning Euro and council elections, and a fat lot of good it did him. It took nine more years for a Conservative return to power at Westminster. Ed Miliband's journey will probably be a long haul of exactly the same length - nine painful years - if he makes it at all.

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