In normal times, a series of important mayoral and local elections being postponed for a year would be the talk of the news rounds, complete with debate, controversy, and a full reanalysis of the races in question. However, these are not normal times and as such, the decision was mainly met with a shrug. Football and Glastonbury have been cancelled, who cares about some silly local elections?
But while it might have got lost amidst the wider impacts of this ongoing crisis, these postponements will change politics and will force many campaigns to completely re-evaluate their tactics.
Let’s start with London. With around eight weeks to go the London Mayor Sadiq Khan was enjoying a huge lead of 25 points in the polls. In the final stretch of an election, that is game over territory, but with a whole year to go, and especially what is bound to be a momentous year, who knows? As London increasingly comes under the spotlight as the most affected part of the country for Coronavirus, Khan will need to be a leader who helps lift the city through a difficult period, and political capital can be easily won and lost in times like this. Secondly, the Conservatives now have time to rethink what to do. Shaun Bailey is failing to achieve much cut through with voters, and bluntly, the best way for them to make this race more competitive might be to drop him altogether and bring in someone more electable – there was speculation that James Cleverly might be being lined up for it, which would be an interesting proposition.
For the rest of the country, the headlines were almost certainly set to be huge Labour losses. The party has not responded in any meaningful way yet to its drubbing in December, and has not yet elected a replacement for Jeremy Corbyn. Individual campaigns for some of the Mayoral races were internally chaotic, and there was very little by way of clear, nationwide planning from the party, with the elections resembling a series of individual scraps. This can change now. By the time the next local elections come around, we will have had a new Labour leader (very likely to be Sir Keir Starmer), in charge for a whole year, and the party will – you would hope – have gone some way towards regenerating itself and moving on from the Corbyn era. If the elections hadn’t been moved, they would have been an almost immediate dampener for Starmer’s leadership, a stonking great loss a few weeks into his reign. But now the elections are in May 2021, they have been transformed from an obstacle to an opportunity. For all those in the Labour Party, May 2021 will become a shared milestone, the first big chance to show that the party is once again apolitical force to be reckoned with. It gives them something to work towards and something to aim for in the short term, rather than having to focus on a distant battle like the 2024 General Election.
In the grand scheme of things, these political concerns are not currently important and of course it was sensible to move the elections in the interests of public health. But, politics always continues, and behind the scenes political parties will already be planning their next moves and reassessing a complex battlefield. That battlefield is now much more complex and extensive than anything before. This year’s elections were already considered wide ranging with the various local and mayoral elections. Now pushed back a year they will combine with even more scheduled elections. 2021 will now see elections for the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, the Mayor of London and Greater London Assembly, 7 mayors of combined authorities, 24 county councils, 35 metropolitan boroughs, 5 single authority mayors, a host of unitary councils and districts, and 32 Police & Crime Commissioners. I wonder what Brenda from Bristol will think!
It’s too early to say what the public’s view on handing the Coronavirus crisis will be, but given the expected scale and length of the crisis, it will no doubt influence the myriad of 2021 elections.