LONDON – Rarely has the American political maxim “all politics is local” seemed more appropriate for an election in Britain.
When voters go to the polls on Thursday to select thousands of representatives in scores of local municipalities in England, Scotland and Wales, their choices will reverberate in British national politics, potentially serving as a referendum on the Conservative Party and its scandal-scarred leader, Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Heavy Conservative losses could crystallize fears in the party that Mr. Johnson’s attendance at social gatherings that violated Covid restrictions has hopelessly supplied his political brand – and, by extension, the party’s. That could provoke a no-confidence vote in his leadership, forcing him from office.
This does not mean the scandal over Downing Street parties is uppermost in the minds of many voters. They care more about quotidian concerns such as garbage collection, road maintenance and planning rules – issues that are controlled by elected local council members.
Why are the Conservatives vulnerable?
The Conservatives face stiff headwinds as Britain struggles with soaring energy and food costs. The scandal over illicit parties held at Downing Street has deepened the anti-incumbent fashion, leading some Conservative members of Parliament to worry that Mr. Johnson could endanger their own seats in a future general election.
Although his energetic support of Ukraine and of its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has changed the subject for now, Mr. Johnson still faces several developments that could further erode his standing.
The police could impose more fines on him for breaking Covid rules (he has already paid one). And a government investigator, Sue Gray, is scheduled to deliver a report on the affair that many expect will paint a damning portrait of the alcohol-fueled culture in Downing Street under Mr. Johnson.
While the Conservatives trail the opposition Labor Party in polls, the route is far from a forgone conclusion. Labor did well in 2018, the last time that many of these seats were in play, which gives it less room to advance. While it may pick off some Conservative bastions in London, it could struggle to claw back seats in the “red wall,” the industrial strongholds in the north of England where the Conservatives made inroads in 2019.
Who’s voting and for what?
Voting is mostly to elect “councillors,” representatives in municipalities who oversee functions like filling potholes, collecting trash and issuing construction permits. Whatever happens, there will be no change in the national government led by Mr. Johnson. Turnout is likely to be low.
Elections are taking place everywhere in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and there is also voting in parts of England. Politicians often look to the results as a test of public fashion, but some voters think more about their patch than about the big political picture. And because votes are cast only in some locations, these elections offer at best a fragmented sense of what the electorate is thinking.
What would victory look like?
Even before the first vote was cast, the parties were playing down how they expected to perform. It would be no shock on Friday, when the results pour in, if they all claim to be surprised by a better-than-expected result.
That’s all part of the game, because in local elections, shaping the narrative is particularly important. In 1990, the Conservatives famously painted defeat as victory by calling attention to symbolic wins in two boroughs in London: Wandsworth and Westminster.
Accordingly, the Conservatives do not appear ruffled to see the predictions that they could lose 550 seats, because that sets the bar low. Labor, for its part, has dampened expectations by arguing that its strong performance four years ago, when many of the seats were last contested, gives it little room to improve.
The Conservatives would like to avoid a loss of more than 350 seats, but they could brush off 100 to 150 seats as typical midterm blues. A gain of more than 100 seats would be a big success for Mr. Johnson.
The Labor leader, Keir Starmer, would be disappointed if his party failed to score any significant wins; 50 to 100 seats would be a creditable performance. He also hopes to consolidate Labor’s grip in London.
Which races tell a broader story about British politics?
With results pouring in from across England, Scotland and Wales – as well as from elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly, where there are different dynamics at play – Friday could seem bewildering.
But a handful of races may illuminate the state of British politics. In London, the Conservatives will struggle to hold on to the boroughs of Wandsworth and Westminster. Conservatives have controlled Wandsworth since the days of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Westminster, where the Downing Street scandal is a local issue, has never been out of Conservative control.
In the North London borough of Barnet, where 15 percent of the population is Jewish, Labor, which had been criticized under its former leader, Jeremy Corbyn, for anti-Semitism, is looking for a redemptive win. Under Mr. Starmer, Labor has worked to root out anti-Semitism and mend its ties with British Jews.
In the “red wall,” Labor’s ability to reverse Tory inroads will face a test. The Conservatives won a parliamentary by-election in Hartlepool, a port city in the northeast of England, last year. But the local election there is likely to be tight. A Conservative running for a city ward seat urged voters: “Don’t punish local Conservatives for the mistakes made in Westminster.”
In Scotland, the question is whether the Conservatives can maintain gains made in the last vote in 2017, when it won the second-largest number of votes, after the Scottish National Party. Polls show that the popularity of the Tories has been damaged in Scotland by the Downing Street scandal.
What does the rise of nationalists mean for the Northern Ireland election?
Elections for Northern Ireland’s legislature could deliver the now far-reaching results. The Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein, was well placed to win the most seats, which would represent an extraordinary coming-of-age for a political party that many still associate with years of paramilitary violence.
The results, not expected until Saturday, could upend the power-sharing arrangements in the North that have kept a fragile peace for two decades. In polls this past week, Sinn Fein held a consistent lead over the Democratic Unionist Party, which favors Northern Ireland’s current status as part of the United Kingdom.
Sinn Fein has run a campaign that emphasizes kitchen-table concerns such as the high cost of living and health care – and that plays down its ideological commitment to Irish unification, a legacy of its ties to the Irish Republican Army.
The only immediate effect of a Sinn Fein victory would be the right to name the first minister in the next government. But the unionists, who have splintered into three parties and could still end up with the biggest bloc of votes, have warned that they will not take part in a government with Sinn Fein at the helm.