Parties square up for election battles of 2017


Voters weary of trudging to the ballot box for major polls over the past three years may be wishing for some respite in 2017 but for many that will not be the case, with a significant set of local and mayoral elections on May 4.

Given the political uncertainty surrounding Brexit, an early general election will also be the subject of speculation, although Prime Minister Theresa May has ruled this out and the Fixed Term Parliaments Act would make it difficult to arrange. Under the law, the next general election is due in 2020.

The May 4 polls will be watched keenly to see how the main parties perform. All face particular challenges.

It says something about the dramatic upheavals in British politics that none of the leaders of the six main political parties that took the bulk of the votes in the UK at the 2014 Euro elections was still in place at the end of 2016: David Cameron, then Conservative prime minister; Ed Milliband, then Labour leader; Nick Clegg, then Liberal Democrat leader; Natalie Bennett, then leader of the Green Party of England and Wales; Alex Salmond, then SNP leader; and even Nigel Farage, then Ukip leader, whose party topped the popular vote.

Since May 2014, voters in Scotland have voted in an independence referendum in September 2014 and those across the UK have gone to the polls in:

:: The general election of May 2015 that delivered a surprise win for the Conservatives.

:: A major set of elections for different authorities in May 2016 including the London Mayor and Assembly, Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, Northern Ireland Assembly, and police commissioners in England and Wales.

:: The EU referendum of June 2016 that delivered the seismic vote in favour of Brexit.

In addition, party fortunes have waxed and waned in the English local elections: in May 2014, Labour and Ukip gained council seats overall while Tories and Lib Dems lost; in May 2015, Conservatives and Ukip were up while Labour and Lib Dems were down; and in May 2016, Lib Dems and Ukip gained while Labour and Tories lost.   

Now all eyes turn to May 2017, which will see full elections for 34 English councils, including 27 county councils, and for all 32 Scottish councils and all 22 Welsh councils, as well as polls in England for directly-elected mayors in seven devolved new super-regions plus two existing councils.

Most of the English council seats up this time are Tory-held and any losses or gains for the party will be regarded as significant as it struggles to deliver Brexit - just a month after Mrs May is due to trigger Article 50 leading to the UK's departure from the EU.

The challenges facing Labour in the polls in England, Scotland and Wales will be seen as another test for Jeremy Corbyn after a bruising battle over his party leadership in 2016.

The Lib Dems, boosted by their recent Commons by-election victory at Richmond Park and a string of local by-election successes, will be seeking to show they are back in serious contention after their general election debacle when they were reduced to just eight MPs.

Ukip under its new leader Paul Nuttall, who has pledged to challenge Labour in its heartlands, will be trying to put the party's divisions behind it and build on previous local election successes.

The SNP will be aiming to reassert its political dominance north of the border by taking more council seats and a bigger share of the vote than it did in the previous Scottish council polls in 2012 when it was only slightly ahead of Labour in terms of seats and vote share.

But the single transferable vote (STV) system used for the Scottish local elections could prevent it from sweeping the board in the way it did under first-past-the-post at the UK general election when it took 56 of the 59 Commons seats in Scotland.

In Wales, Labour will be seeking to defend and if possible build upon the significant gains in council seats and control that it made in the previous Welsh local elections in 2012. The party faces challenges from Plaid Cymru, Tories, Lib Dems and Ukip, which had a breakthrough with seven AMs elected in regional PR top-up seats in the Welsh Assembly elections last May.

The local elections will take place on redrawn ward or division boundaries in 13 of the 34 English councils and 25 of the 32 Scottish councils. There are no local boundary changes in Wales this time.

Voting is set to take place in England for directly-elected mayors in the following new devolved super-regions for the first time: Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, Greater Manchester; Liverpool City Region; Sheffield City Region; Tees Valley; West Midlands; and West of England. 

In addition, mayoral elections take place at Doncaster and North Tyneside, which last saw polls for directly-elected mayors in 2013. Doncaster also has an all-up council election this time.

Among the prospective regional mayoral candidates selected so far by the main parties, Labour has picked ex-frontbencher and Leigh MP Andy Burnham for the Greater Manchester poll, Liverpool Walton MP Steve Rotherham for Liverpool City Region, and West Midlands MEP and former Birmingham Erdington MP Sion Simon for West Midlands.

Conservative selections include Trafford Council leader Sean Anstee for Greater Manchester and former John Lewis managing director Andy Street for West Midlands.

Apart from the various polls, politicians and pundits will be focused in 2017 on the progress of plans to redraw the boundaries of Westminster constituencies that will see the total number of MPs cut from 650 to 600 at the 2020 general election.

The boundary commissions for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been consulting on their initial proposals for the changes.

The Boundary Commission for England disclosed in mid-December that it had received 17,000 submissions in the first consultation period. It intends publishing these in the spring of 2017 and then will consider revisions.

The Scottish representations are also expected to be published in the spring but those for Wales and Northern Ireland could come earlier, in January or February.

The commissions are expected to publish their revised proposals in late 2017 or early 2018, followed by a final consultation period. The final proposals are due to be sent to Parliament for approval in October 2018.

If an early general election did take place in 2017 or 2018, it would have to be run on the same boundaries as the 2010 and 2015 general elections.

Boundary changes that were due to have been put in place during the last Parliament were blocked by the Liberal Democrats in 2013 after a dispute with their Conservative coalition government partners.