James Forsyth

Elections? What elections?

The EU referendum hogs all the attention, but what happens in Scotland, Wales and London has real political significance

Elections? What elections?
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Britain goes to the polls next week. Yet this has barely registered on the media radar. These aren’t the forgotten elections; they are the ones nobody’s bloody heard of. This is surprising, because they have real political significance. North of the border, the Scottish parliamentary elections will almost certainly result in another overall majority for the SNP. But we might also see something no one would have predicted even two years ago: the Tories beating Labour into second place. In Wales, the assembly elections will reveal whether Labour can hang on to power, but also whether Ukip can establish itself as a political force there. In England, the local elections will be Jeremy Corbyn’s first big test. And across England and Wales, the police and crime commissioner elections will show if the public can be persuaded to engage with genuine localism.

The main reason for this lack of attention is that the EU referendum is consuming Downing Street’s attention; one No. 10 staff member has taken to remarking: ‘I work on domestic policy, so I am feeling a bit lonely at the moment’. Right now, it is also the dominant story for the political press; the lens through which everything else is seen.

But there are other, more subtle reasons, too. When the Blair government first introduced its devolution plan, it was assumed that elections to these bodies would be mid-term verdicts on national government. But Scottish politics is now so distinct from Westminster that few will attempt to draw lessons for the rest of the UK from the results there. This distinction is, in many ways, an inevitable consequence of devolution.

What is more worrying is the lack of coverage of the Holyrood elections down south. Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and John Kasich have garnered far more column inches and airtime than Nicola Sturgeon, Kezia Dugdale and Ruth Davidson in the past month or two. For the Union to survive in the long term there needs to be a broad awareness, both at Westminster and among the public, of what is happening in every part of it.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Scottish campaign is how managerial the SNP’s pitch is. You will look in vain in its manifesto for a big new idea. Instead, it is full of small, technocratic policies. In this respect it is very much reminiscent of New Labour’s 2005 manifesto. The main focus of the SNP is the First Minister. It is her face on the cover of the manifesto and she has appealed to voters to elect her on her personal mandate. All this suggests that we might be past ‘peak SNP’, as the laws of political gravity will soon start to apply again.

The real Scottish battle is for second place. The Tories, particularly those close to the leadership, are strikingly optimistic about their chances of beating Labour. This explains why they are so frustrated that the national government is making things more difficult for them — from the travails of the Budget to Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation, to the row over child refugees. As one ally of Ruth Davidson complains: ‘Every time London opens its mouth, it makes it more difficult for us.’ Indeed, Davidson is running a campaign that is almost completely independent of the UK party: David Cameron won’t even be going to Scotland.

For Davidson herself the stakes are high. She has — as this magazine’s Scotland editor memorably put it — made the Tory campaign ‘the Ruth, the whole Ruth and nothing but the Ruth’, If she fails to become leader of the Holyrood opposition, her enemies in the Scottish Tory party — of whom there are more than her media image might suggest — will snipe at the brand of personality politics which has long been her hallmark. If she succeeds, her authority will be enhanced, as will her influence on the national party.

The Welsh assembly doesn’t have the same powers as the Scottish parliament, and politics is less dramatic there. Indeed, at times, Wales’s main role appears to be to demonstrate what would have happened to public services without the reforms implemented in England. Polls suggest that the slow decline of Labour in Wales will continue; latest figures suggest that the party will lose a couple of seats. Intriguingly, polling also suggests that Ukip will gain a sizeable presence in the assembly.

In London, this is the first mayoral election without Ken Livingstone on the ballot. Shorn, too, of Boris Johnson, the contest lacks star power. Given that in 2012 turnout was only 38 per cent, one wonders how low it will dip this time. Indeed, this expected low turnout is why those close to Zac Goldsmith’s campaign insist the race isn’t over despite Sadiq Khan’s clear lead in the polls.

If Khan does make it to City Hall, he’ll become that rare thing: a Labour politician in power. Many in the party want him to set out an agenda with greater voter appeal than Corbyn’s. Given the mayor’s limited powers this will be hard. While he is not as far from the electoral centre as Corbyn, he is still from the soft left; he ran Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign in 2010. A party that relies on Khan for a more centrist agenda will be disappointed — and far from power.

Turnout, however, will be lowest in the police and crime commissioner elections. Partly this is the government’s fault; despite the Electoral Commission’s advice, it isn’t sending out materials on the candidates to voters. But it also suggests that the public might not be as keen on this kind of local democracy as many had hoped. The Manchester model, where the powers of these commissioners go to an elected mayor, as in London, suggests that this might be a short-lived innovation.

Devolution has proved a distinctly mixed blessing for the United Kingdom. The idea that devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales would encompass reformers whose innovations Westminster would rush to copy turned out to be just a dream. Devolution has also created a dangerous distance between the constituent parts of the UK.

But now the die has been cast, Britain needs to move towards a more federal system. Westminster must remain the Parliament of the United Kingdom, not just the English. If that were to happen, the SNP would have all the ammunition they need to demand another independence referendum.