Final countdown begins to bumper elections

Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer, deputy leader Angela Rayner, and Labour's candidate for Hartlepool Paul Williams on a walkabout at the Seaton Carew seafront Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

Campaigning across Britain is entering the final days of an electoral race that could have major ramifications for politics in the UK, and perhaps the Union itself.

About 48 million people are eligible to vote on what has been dubbed “super Thursday” and which is taking place against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic.

Mayors and councils will be selected in England, while parliaments will be chosen in Wales and Scotland, where a majority for nationalists would provoke a fresh drive for independence.

A by-election will take place in Hartlepool in the first parliamentary electoral challenge for Sir Keir Starmer at the helm of Labour, in a major test for his leadership.

Covid-19 has already shaped the election in swelling its scale, with ballots in England having been postponed during the first wave of the crisis last year.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak on a local election campaign visit to the Northern School of Art in Hartlepool Credit: Lee Smith/PA

But the pandemic is also expected to be front and centre of many voters’ minds, with some anticipating a “vaccine boost” for the Tories due to the success of the rollout so far.

Oppositions typically hope to make gains in local elections, as voters register their discontent against the Government of the day, but polls have suggested Labour may struggle in its former heartlands.

If the Conservatives make fresh inroads in the North and the Midlands, the Government would welcome that as further approval of its “levelling up” agenda and would use it as a defence to allegations of sleaze that have been battering Boris Johnson.

But the greatest electoral test is for Sir Keir – his first since taking over from Jeremy Corbyn, who stood down in the wake of the 2019 general election defeat for Labour as some traditional voters headed to the Tories in their support for Brexit.

The stakes are also high in Scotland’s parliamentary elections.

SNP leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been clear that a majority for her party should be rewarded with a second independence referendum.

But that would put her on a collision course with the Prime Minister, who vehemently opposes “IndyRef2”.

Labour is seeking to maintain its grip on the Senedd in Wales, where police and crime commissions are up for election, as they are in England.

Sadiq Khan is widely expected to maintain the party’s hold on City Hall, while other mayoral elections are taking place across the nation.

However, polling suggests Labour may struggle again in its former heartlands, with YouGov projecting the Conservatives to gain about 90 council seats in the so-called “red wall” by picking up Ukip votes as Labour loses 59.

Sir Keir has tried to focus voters’ minds on allegations of “sleaze” that have been peppering the Government, including leaks, the funding of lavish refurbishments of Mr Johnson’s Downing Street flat and a lobbying row centred on Tory former prime minister David Cameron.

Labour leader Keir Starmer during a visit to the Liberty Steel Mill in Hartlepool on Saturday Credit: Ian Forsyth/PA

But polling has painted an unclear picture on whether weeks of negative press have dented support for the Conservatives.

The Tories had been riding high despite the furore from critics, but two new polls have suggested the Tory lead has been cut.

Either way, the race has looked tight in the Leave-backing constituency of Hartlepool.

Labour has held the seat since its inception in 1974, but the party’s majority was cut to just 3,595 over the Tories in the last election.

During his third visit of the campaign to the battleground, Sir Keir insisted the frequency of visits was not a sign of his concern that Labour may lose out to the Tories.

“Quite the contrary, I love coming here,” he told reporters during a visit to Liberty Steel in Hartlepool on Saturday.

He declined to say where a loss there would leave him as Labour leader, instead saying: “This is about Hartlepool, it’s not about me, we’re fighting for every vote.”

Party officials have sought to downplay the significance of a possible Labour defeat, painting it as a “pandemic election” that will not be reflective of future ballots.

The number of visits by senior politicians does at least demonstrate the pressure to win Hartlepool, with the Prime Minister having visited twice and Chancellor Rishi Sunak once.

Having been banned during the lockdown, campaigning in England was permitted to resume from March 8 and doorstep campaigning and leafleting has been taking place under social distancing restrictions, with questions remaining how restrictions will affect voter turnout.