Voters in the United Kingdom went to the polls overnight in its annual round of local elections – an event much loved by local pundits, and important, of course, for the governance of the various local authorities involved. But its importance for national politics is usually less than most of the commentary would suggest.
This year’s round is a fairly big one: all local authorities in Scotland and Wales were voting, as were all of the London boroughs plus a selection of authorities elsewhere in England (including the whole of Birmingham city council). The majority of the seats were last voted on in 2018 (in England) or 2017 (Scotland and Wales).
Those were both fairly good years for Labour, so its capacity for further gains is not huge. Nor, however, is there an expectation that the Conservatives are poised to win back much ground, with possible gains in the north of England balanced by losses in the south. And with no general election due until the end of 2024, there’s plenty of time for either side to make up for a poor performance – although perhaps not for prime minister Boris Johnson, whose own party may be running out of patience with him.
The biggest of the elections, however, has been in Northern Ireland, whose devolved Assembly has (somewhat against expectations) made it to the end of its five-year term. Since the province’s government is based on institutionalised power-sharing, the precise composition of the Assembly is not as important as it might seem, but the elections are still being closely watched for what they say about Northern Ireland public opinion: a subject that has become much more interesting than it was in 2017.
As we’ve noted here a number of times, the advent of Brexit has put Irish unification back on the political agenda. Johnson succeeded in getting a deal with the European Union by agreeing to treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK – an idea that is anathema to the unionists and especially to the largest unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). British and Irish politics have therefore become entwined in complex ways.
You can read my report on the 2017 election here. Fought less than a year after the “leave” victory in the Brexit referendum, it was the first election ever in the province in which unionists failed to win a majority. Three unionist parties plus an independent won 44.1% of the vote between them and 40 of the 90 seats; the two nationalist parties together won 39.9% and 39 seats. The remaining 11 seats went to parties that are neutral on the question (mostly the liberal Alliance, but also two Greens and one Trotskyist).
The way power-sharing works is that the largest party in the largest political tendency (unionist or nationalist) gets to nominate the first minister, and the largest party in the other tendency nominates the deputy first minister. For practical purposes, the two have equal powers. During the last Assembly, the first minister has been from the DUP and the deputy first minister from Sinn Féin, but at the moment both positions are vacant because the DUP’s Paul Givan resigned three months ago (which automatically vacates the deputy’s position as well) in protest against Johnson’s failure to do its bidding on Brexit.
Opinion polls suggest that the DUP, which has been plagued by leadership instability, has lost ground and is likely to be replaced as the largest party by Sinn Féin. That would be symbolically powerful, but not necessarily of much practical importance. Sinn Féin’s own vote is fairly static, and the total unionist vote may well still exceed the total nationalist vote.
The big issues of Brexit and reunification also seem to have been largely absent from the campaign, with Sinn Féin relying less on its ideological appeal and behaving more like a normal opposition party stressing domestic issues. The continued rise of the Alliance, which could even become the second-largest party, adds to the impression that voters are looking to somehow put behind them the apparently endless clash of unionist and nationalist.
But it’s not clear how that can be done. Without a committed Protestant (and unionist) majority, the separate existence of Northern Ireland makes no sense, yet there seems little enthusiasm so far for reunification (although further Brexit developments may still change that). Even if last night’s voting does little to address them, the big issues are not going away.