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On Thursday the 6th of May 2021, 48 million people across the UK had their chance to have a say in the biggest set of UK elections outside of a general election in 50 years. Up for grabs were 145 English councils (around 5000 seats), 13 directly elected mayors, 39 police and crime commissioners, 129 members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs), 60 members of the Senedd (MSs), 25 seats in the London Assembly, and an MP for Hartlepool. As the first major UK elections to take place during the pandemic and billed as the first test of Keir Starmer’s leadership in opposition, it was set to be a dramatic count and politically important set of results.
The first and most anticipated result of the day was for the Hartlepool by-election, which was taken from Labour by the Conservative candidate, Jill Mortimer, with a massive 51.9% of the vote, a 23.2% majority over Labour’s candidate. The constituency voted Labour in every election in 62 years, but the change comes after several neighbouring constituencies have fallen one by one to the conservatives in recent years. Nevertheless, this election was seen as a chance for Labour to show that its support in the so-called ‘red wall’ in the industrial heartlands of the north of England could be clawed back after their also-humiliating 2019 general election defeat. Conversely, it shows that the Conservatives’ rebranding since Cameron’s austerity years has been a success. Of course, with the success of the UK vaccination rollout the Conservatives are considered to have had a ‘vaccine bounce’, while others argue that Starmer’s Labour lacks a clear vision. Whatever the reason, the Labour party has yet again, in the words of Starmer, “lost the trust of the working people”, as Boris Johnson happily took a day out to visit the new MP and look at a giant inflatable of himself erected in Hartlepool, saying that this was a mandate for the party to “build back better” after the pandemic.
Labour lost control of several English councils, with the Conservatives making gains. With some results yet to be announced, Starmer said he is “bitterly disappointed”, while Johnson said the results so far are “very encouraging” for the Conservative party. It was a similar story to Hartlepool in the Tees Valley, where the Tories won 73% of the mayoral vote in an area that traditionally votes Labour. It was better news for Labour in the cities though, with Liverpool electing Joanna Anderson as mayor with 59.2% of the vote, making history as the first black woman to lead a major English city, and saying that “today is the beginning of the fresh start we all want and need” for Liverpool. In London Labour’s Sadiq Khan won a second mayoral term, and in Manchester Andy Burnham was re-elected as mayor with 67% of the vote, after taking a high profile in opposing the government’s decisions to put much of the north of England into tier three restrictions last year. A mayoral race that changed hands was the West of England Mayor, where Labour’s Dan Norris took it from the Conservatives after a tense count. The Conservatives held onto Lancashire county council, gaining 2 seats to a total of 48. Labour also gained 2 seats (to a total of 32), and the Greens gained 1, to a total of 2.
The SNP won an historic victory in Scotland, winning 64 of the 129 seats, missing an outright majority by just one seat. The pro-independence majority is larger than the last parliament, with the Greens, who won eight seats (up 2), also backing a break from the UK. This is set to cause
additional friction and a likely political stalemate between Holyrood and Westminster, with Johnson saying that it would be “irresponsible and reckless” to hold an ‘indyref2’, while Nicola Sturgeon told Channel 4 News her government would legislate for a vote and “if Boris Johnson wants to stop that he would have to go to court.” The next largest party in the Scottish government is the Conservatives, with 31 seats (no change), followed by Labour with 22 (down 2). The Scottish Parliament is set to be the most diverse ever, with 57 successful female candidates, up from a previous high in 1999 of 48, and more disabled MSPs and more politicians from minority ethnic backgrounds.
With all the Senedd results now declared, Labour have taken control of the Senedd with 30 of the 60 seats, matching their best result since devolution. It was considered a bad election for Plaid Cymru, who were pushed out of second place by the Conservatives, who gained 5 seats. The notable seats that changed hands were the Rhondda, held by former Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood since 2016 and taken back by Labour, Brecon and Radnorshore, the seat of the Liberal Democrat former education minister Kirsty Williams taken by the Conservatives, and the Vale of Clwyd in north-east Wales (part of the ‘red wall’ according to some) changed from Labour to Conservative. Labour’s victory has been partly credited to the Labour First Minister, Mark Drakeford, whose leadership throughout the pandemic has provided recognition to the Welsh government, with pundits arguing that this was the first election in Wales where people understood the role of the Senedd, instead of its elections following UK-wide trends. Unlike the red wall in the north of England, the Labour heartlands of the south Wales Valleys have remained red, as have most of the block of Labour seats in the north east. The number of female MSs fell from 29 to 26, out of 60, leading to campaigners saying that the fall in female members is a “step back for equality,” especially after the Senedd became the first legislative body in the world to achieve a 50/50 male/female split in 2003. Wales elected its first woman of colour to the Senedd, the Conservative MS Natasha Asghar, who said the Senedd is “very outdated” and needs to better represent Wales’ diverse communities.
After a good set of results for the Conservatives, the SNP, and Welsh Labour, incumbency arguably played a large part in these elections. With a long argument about Scottish independence just beginning, and Labour infighting already dominating the narrative with a likely shadow-cabinet reshuffle, the Conservatives, the SNP, and Welsh Labour have received what can be read as a vote-of-confidence in their governance.