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Scotland to become more assertive
after nationalist party’s landslide win

By Brian Baker, Senior Correspondent

12 May 2011: In a cruel irony for electoral reformers, the Scottish Parliamentary election on 5 May 2011 delivered a decisive result under a proportional system. The Scottish National Party (SNP) won 69 of the 130 seats in the Holyrood parliament to secure an overall majority of eight over all other parties.

| English results | Pre-election review |

Winning 45 per cent of the votes cast, 12 per cent more than their previous highest, the SNP, led by Alex Salmond, achieved their greatest ever day. They now have a clear parliamentary path for a referendum bill paving the way for a vote on independence before the 2016 elections.

Mr Salmond wants to delay that referendum until the second half of the parliament but will come under pressure from UK Prime Minister David Cameron and all the main Westminster parties to hold it by, at the latest, May 2014. Any later than that would clearly interfere with the UK electoral cycle and would not allow sufficient time for an orderly transition in the event of the Scottish people voting for independence.

This summer is likely to see some jousting between Westminster and Holyrood as arguments rage over amendments to the Scotland Bill currently making its way through the Westminster parliament. The SNP wants additional clauses in it to allow them to vary the rate of Corporation Tax and to raise money on the bonds market.

Cameron has quickly made it clear that the Coalition government will not argue over the legal niceties about the holding of a referendum. This would make them look foolish to many in Scotland and would run counter to their  preference for an early date for the vote.

The success of the SNP at the election was based on four competent years of minority administration, the consequences of the deep unpopularity of the Liberal Democrats as a result of the coalition and a decline in the Labour vote especially in its heartland areas.

In the first Scottish Parliament in 1997 Labour had 56 seats. In the fourth, they have 37. A refusal to modernise in the Blair image brought Scottish Labour short-term popularity but they are now paying the price for looking old fashioned and for being led by mediocrities. In contrast the SNP has made the most of the advantage of having its best people available for the Holyrood parliament.

Ironically, the success of the nationalists in the election last week has led to the best and brightest of the SNP’s younger politicians, Shirley Anne Somerville, being absent from a parliament which contains members of whom few, even in the party, have heard.

Somerville narrowly lost the only Edinburgh constituency seat which Labour held on to but because of her colleagues success elsewhere in the city the party did not qualify for any regional list seats in Edinburgh and the Lothians.
Consequently, she was not elected. Her absence makes it more difficult for Salmond to bring forward a younger, fresher look in his second administration.
With an overall majority for the next five years the SNP will now introduce minimum pricing for alcohol, a flagship policy which was defeated by the other parties last year, and have promised to maintain the freeze on the rate of Council Tax charged to residents for a whole of the parliamentary session. That may lead to real tensions between Holyrood and local government.
The dramatic outcome led to the immediate resignations of the Labour and Liberal Democrat leaders in Scotland. Conservative Annabel Goldie announced on May 9th that she also would stand down in the autumn.    

Liberal Democrat Leader Tavish Scott blamed their participation in the UK coalition government for the collapse in their vote. Several candidates lost their deposits and they are reduced to a rump of 5 seats. Three of these are regional list seats. The only two constituency seats are those for the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

The Conservatives lost 2 seats and have 15 in the new parliament. Their only constituency seats are two in the far south of Scotland. Ms Goldie would have had to contest an election for her job later this year anyway as the Scottish Conservatives are changing their internal structures. She said she was making an early announcement that she would not be a candidate “in the interests of clarity.”

It was a disappointing election for the Scottish Green Party who remain on 2 seats.

Labour’s Iain Gray has promised a thorough review which he will start before handing over the leadership role in the autumn. Labour lost several of their better known people from parliament including ex Glasgow City Council Leader Charles Gordon and ex Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and South Lanarkshire Council Leader Tom McCabe. This may prove helpful as it is tone of voice and attitude to modern Scottish aspirations which Labour needs most to change. To do that they must become more… well, perhaps more Blairite.

Liberal Democrats made to suffer
for unpopular government policies

By Andrew Stevens and Emma Vandore

7 May 2011: UK voters firmly rejected a proposal on voting reform and gave a slap in the face to the party who has long campaigned for it. The Liberal Democrats usually do well in local elections, but were punished this year for reneging on campaign promises in government, notably over tuition fees. Their senior coalition partner, the Conservatives, defended most of their heartland town halls and even made some modest gains, as voters channelled their frustration over spending cuts against the junior partner. The opposition Labour party made impressive gains in northern England, taking control of several key councils from the Liberal Democrats.

It is the first time that a Liberal party has been part of a government since the country’s wartime coalition of Prime Minister Winston Churchill. In the coalition agreement, Leader Nick Clegg demanded a referendum on introducing the alternative vote system for elections to Westminster. As the third party in British politics, the Liberal Democrats feel they are penalised by the current winner-takes-all First Past The Post system and reform had become the party’s Holy Grail. Humiliated in both this quest and in local elections across the country, the party will no doubt be demanding a new strategy from Clegg.

The AV (Alternative Vote) referendum was held on the same day as local elections in most parts of England and elections to legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The stunning result in Scotland, which handed full power to the Scottish National Party (SNP) could lead to a referendum on independence. In Wales, the incumbent Labour administration slightly increased its tally of assembly seats.

In England’s complicated system, almost half of all council seats up for election, with the notable exception of London where there are no local elections this year. In Hull, Newcastle and Sheffield, Labour took control of the city councils from the Liberal Democrats, who registered heavy defeats. They also lost control of Bristol and saw further extensive losses in Labour-run Liverpool.

In Manchester, Labour obtained a clean sweep across the city council and in its suburbs of Bolton, Bury, Oldham and Stockport, it regained control of local councils, also taking Leeds city council from no overall control.

Although now the largest party in Birmingham, Labour did not gain a majority on the city council. In Brighton, the Greens emerged as the largest party on the city council, which also remains under no overall control, following a Conservative administration.

There was delight among all of Britain's mainstream political parties that the right-wing British National Party (BNP) lost all of its five seats in Stoke-on-Trent.

Most mayors are appointed by their local council, but five directly elected mayors were also on the campaign trail. The idea of directly elected mayors, of which there are thirteen, is a legacy of the previous government’s devolution agenda.

In Middlesbrough, despite a bumpy campaign following secret recordings by a former associate of off-colour remarks about Asian taxi drivers and female council officers in the town, independent mayor Ray Mallon was elected to a third term on 50.4 per cent, narrowly avoiding a second round instant run-off vote.

In the Devon coastal resort of Torbay, Mayor Nick Bye was defeated in a second round instant run-off by Conservative councillor Gordon Oliver, who stood on a platform of abolishing the elected mayoralty and slashing his salary. In the previous election Oliver stood as an independent and was defeated by Bye, who was deselected by party activists as Tory candidate last year.

In Mansfield, a second round instant run-off was required between two-term independent Tony Egginton and his Labour rival Steve Yemm, with Egginton elected with a majority of just 57 votes. Leicester saw a win by the city's former MP and former council leader Sir Peter Soulsby. And in Bedford, the incumbent Liberal Democrat Dave Hodgson won against the odds.

Elections were held in all 36 metropolitan districts, 194 non-metropolitan district authorities, 49 unitary authorities. Metropolitan districts were created to cover the six largest urban areas in England outside Greater London. Non-metropolitan or “shire” districts operate in mostly two-tier systems, although there are exceptions. Unitary authorities usually exist to allow large towns to have separate local authorities from the less urbanised surrounding areas. Six unitary authorities, seven districts, and the 32 London boroughs did not hold votes this year.

Of the 9,404 seats contested, before May 5 the Conservatives held 5,038, Liberal Democrats 1,836 and Labour 1,598, with the remainder held by Independents and smaller parties. The last elections for most of these seats were in 2007, a particularly poor result for the then governing Labour Party.

British government faces
day of judgment on 5 May

27 March 2011: Campaigning is underway in England’s local elections, which take place 5 May, giving voters a chance to judge the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government of David Cameron and their wide-ranging spending cuts. The opposition Labour party will be looking to better its strong showing in last year’s council elections, which saw higher-than-usual turnout as they coincided with the general election. This year, the vote will be held on the same day as elections to legislatures in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as a UK-wide referendum on changing the electoral system for general elections.

Even without these distractions, British local elections are difficult for outsiders to fathom, with different numbers of seats open in different regions, and different mayoral systems. In Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle and Sheffield, as well as Bristol, one third of city council seats will be renewed, while in Nottingham all city councillors will face the polls. There are no local elections in London this year.

Although most British mayors are appointed by the local council, a handful of directly elected mayors are campaigning for re-election, but not the most famous: Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s term isn’t up for renewal until 2012. The idea of directly elected mayors is a legacy of the previous government’s devolution agenda. In 2000, English councils were allowed to hold referendums on having an elected mayor, although only a dozen said yes. In 2007, the government changed the law again, allowing councils to have elected mayors without a referendum, although only Leicester chose to do so. The current government has said they want the twelve largest cities in England to have directly elected mayors, with referendums expected next year.

Voters in Middlesbrough could have been forgiven for assuming the town’s mayoral election had been called some time ago as independent mayor Ray Mallon has virtually declared war on the national coalition government’s spending cuts, which have had a disproportionate effect on the already hard-hit town. Bedford’s mayor Dave Hodgson - a Liberal Democrat - will be looking to retain the mayoralty he took in 2009, following the death of the town’s popular independent mayor Frank Branston.

An election for mayor will also be held in the South West coastal resort of Torbay, where sitting Conservative mayor Nick Bye was deselected by his own party in its closed primary of members. Voters in Mansfield will go to the polls to elect the mayor for their district council, currently held by independent Tony Egginton. In the Midlands city of Leicester, the council has become the first to voluntarily introduce the post of elected mayor since it acquired the legal power to do so. Former council leader and the city’s current Member of Parliament Sir Peter Soulsby has secured the Labour nomination and is favourite to win the post.

England’s second city Birmingham currently has a ruling Conservative and Liberal Democrat joint administration, which mirrors that of the governing coalition in Westminster but Labour’s hopes of regaining control of the city council are restricted by the political make-up of the seats where elections will take place. It’s best hopes are for a good showing in order to aim for a breakthrough in 2012, when the authority will also hold a referendum on introducing an elected city mayor. The current council leader Mike Whitby does not share his fellow Conservative David Cameron’s enthusiasm for elected city mayors, while former Labour council leader Sir Albert Bore has campaigned for the proposal.

To some extent the English local elections will be overshadowed by elections to the devolved national assemblies in Scotland and Wales as well as in Northern Ireland, where any attempt to assess the health and popularity of the UK coalition will prove difficult as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are both minority parties. In Scotland, Labour will be looking to retake control of the Parliament in Edinburgh from the Scottish National Party (SNP) administration, though its current antipathy to the Liberal Democrats will make coalition building harder, despite the imperative of the proportional representation system here. The SNP’s attempts to reform Scotland’s 32 local councils through a local income tax are now in tatters and look likely to remain so regardless of who wins.

In Wales, Labour is seeking to increase its tally of assembly seats to govern without its current Welsh nationalist coalition partners Plaid Cymru and has sworn to act against poor governance at several local authorities after the election. Voters in Northern Ireland will also go to the polls to elect 26 district municipalities, including the capital Belfast. There are no local elections in Scotland and Wales this year.

On May 5 all voters of the United Kingdom will be asked to vote on the question of whether to replace the electoral system for the Westminster Parliament from the historic ‘first past the post’ majoritarian system to the ranked preference run-off Alternative Vote system. It will be the first national referendum since the European Communities referendum of 1975. The referendum, which does not concern local elections, was a key condition for Liberal Democrat entry into coalition with the Conservatives following the May 2010 election.

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