x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

UK poll will affect ruling coalition whatever the outcome

Elections to the Scottish parliament, the Welsh and Northern Irish assemblies and many English local authorities will give the electorate its first chance to pass its verdict on the administration¿s performance, while there is also a referendum on changing the British voting system.

Britain's prime minister, David Cameron, faces a day of polls that could have a fundamental effect on his government.
Britain's prime minister, David Cameron, faces a day of polls that could have a fundamental effect on his government.

LONDON // Millions of Britons will go to the polls today for a string of local and regional elections - plus a nationwide referendum on a new voting system - that could fundamentally change the country's political complexion.

A year after the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government was formed, elections in most local authorities in England outside London will give the electorate its first chance to pass its verdict on the administration's performance.

The indications from opinion polls are that it is going to be a verdict that ministers in the uneasy alliance will not find palatable.

Meanwhile, regional elections to the Scottish parliament and the assemblies in Wales (which is taking on markedly increased powers) and Northern Ireland could dramatically change the relationship between London and the regional centres of power. Finally, the referendum on whether or not to change how Britons vote, moving from the traditional, first-past-the-post system to one where voters rank candidates in order of preference, could cause deepening rifts within the coalition, whatever the outcome.

The debate over the proposal to introduce the "alternative vote" (AV) has already been acrimonious, with the prime minister, David Cameron, leading the "no" campaign, while his Liberal Democrat allies sided with Labour in the "yes" camp.

Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, admitted this week that whatever way the nation votes (and polls indicate that a move to AV will be rejected) the referendum will change the nature of the coalition.

Neither he nor Mr Cameron, however, expects the coalition to fall apart because of the differences over AV. "The reason for being in a coalition is as good today as it was a year ago," Mr Cameron said in a BBC radio interview.

"That is because we are dealing with a serious economic situation, with a massive budget deficit, huge debts that we need to deal with.

"This was always going to be a difficult moment, with the two parties on different sides of the referendum campaign.

"But, at the same time as having a robust argument about the future of the voting system, we are getting on with dealing with the problems our country faces."

Although the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has joined the Liberal Democrats in lobbying for the change to AV, his main interest is focused on the local elections in England, Scotland and Wales.

Campaigning in Nottinghamshire this week, he urged voters to deliver a damning verdict on the coalition's first 12 months in power.

"These elections are an important opportunity to send a message across this country and to send a message about a government that doesn't have a mandate for many of the things that they're doing," he said. "Voters at the last election didn't vote for the changes to the National Health Service. They didn't vote for the trebling of [university] tuition fees that we are seeing and they didn't vote for the cuts [in public sector spending] that we are seeing."

But while voters in England might be in a mood to deliver just such a message to the government in London, Labour is not enjoying the resurgence it hoped for in either Scotland or Wales.

In Scotland, Labour had been expecting to wrest power from the Scottish National Party (SNP), which currently controls the quasi-autonomous Scottish parliament in a minority administration.

At the start of the year, Labour enjoyed a healthy lead over the SNP in opinion polls but, gradually, the nationalists, who are planning a referendum on independence for Scotland, have made up ground.

It now looks certain that the balance of power will be determined by the slimmest of margins, with voters equally split over whether Labour or the SNP would do the best job in opposing spending cuts being imposed by the London government.

Labour is more confident of doing well in the elections for the Welsh Assembly, where it currently heads a minority administration in a legislature that is getting an increased number of devolved powers.

However, while still ahead in the opinion polls, Labour is facing strengthening opposition from Plaid Cymru, the Welsh nationalists. As in Scotland, much of the argument centres on which party will best fight cuts being demanded by Westminster.

The Conservatives, whose support in Wales has remained steady at about 20 per cent, could yet play an important role on who controls the next assembly.

One certainty appears to be that the Liberal Democrats will not do well in either Scotland or Wales because they are deemed to have acted as "poodles" to the Tories since the coalition was formed.

In Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Fein, the two partners in the power-sharing arrangement in the assembly, are expected to consolidate power, as both unionists and nationalists show their rejection of the recent upsurge in violence by dissident republicans.