May 2016: devolved elections guide.

The whispers of promises are trickling through the devolved regions of the UK. It is that time once more: regional elections, and everything has surely kicked off, given the amount of media coverage now devoted to campaigns. As I noted previously, Scotland and Wales join Northern Ireland in heading to the polls on the 5th May, and I had promised that I would write a post about the devolved elections. So let’s get stuck in.

There is no doubt that the coming months will be busy, and important ones for the UK electorate, with elections for police and crime commissioners, regional and local governments and four cities electing a mayor on 5th May. And of course, we cannot forget that tiny matter of the UK’s referendum on its future within the European Union, taking place on the 23rd June. Democracy will be in action, as those eligible to do so exercise their right to vote. As regular readers may know, this May marks my first time voting in Northern Ireland’s regional elections. I am looking forward to taking part in electing representatives to the Assembly, and I feel passionately voting. I feel that we are most fortunate to be able to have our say, to have the opportunity to vote, and so I will confess to being perplexed at those who do not drop that little slip of paper into the ballot box. Did you know that the Electoral Commission has previously estimated that up to 7.5 million eligible voters are not registered to have their say? That number staggers me. 7.5 million people across the UK are not on the electoral register, cannot exercise their right to vote and thus arguably are not participants of our democratic society.

That is not all. The Electoral Commission has also warned that the British government’s new rules in relation to individual registration has actually resulted in more people to disappear from electoral rolls. Students, for example, must now sign themselves up individually rather than being included in a hall of residence mass registration or as part of their family’s household, meaning that there are fewer young people are on the electoral register. Moreover, there are those people who, unaware of the new changes, may simply assume that they are still registered. Despite the registration process being more straightforward than before, the Electoral Commission says 40% of British voters are unaware they can register online in just five minutes. And as the Commission itself said:

“Online registration has made it much easier for people to register to vote, so it’s vital everyone knows it exists…”

You see, fun fact: no one is automatically registered on to the electoral roll. In 2014 the system underwent a change in an effort to reduce fraud. The result being that whole-household registrations no longer happen, so that every person must now sign up individually. Now, most people who were already registered were transferred to the new system, but a minority were not. Letters were sent out to inform people whether or not they were on the register, but generally it is safer to contact your local electoral registration office to find out, instead of assuming you are still registered.

Before I launch into the various upcoming elections taking place on the 5th May, I thought I would share the interesting little differences between the devolved regions in relation to voter registration and voting. (The little details interest me, I make no excuses for this.)

Regarding the registration process, voters in England, Scotland and Wales are able to register online or through posting a registration form to their local electoral registration office. These paper forms may be accessed online, or collected from the local electoral registration office. In Northern Ireland however, only the latter option is available – we are not able to register online, which I have noticed has proven to be a source of frustration to many recently. We can but hope that Northern Ireland will eventually provide this online option. However, for all of the regions, it is possible to apply for a postal, or proxy vote using a postal form. (When I initially considered spending longer in the US last year, I had considered applying for a proxy vote to ensure I had my say in determining my local MP.)

Differences between the nations comprising the UK are also evident in relation to who can register to vote. Anyone over the age of 16 is eligible to register, but you must be 18 before you can actually vote in Northern Ireland, Wales, and England. This includes British citizens, qualifying Commonwealth citizens (those who have leave to remain in the UK or do not require leave) and citizens of the Republic of Ireland who residing in the UK. Yet in Scotland, 16 year olds and 17 year olds are now allowed to vote in Scottish elections, following the change in law for the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014.

IMG_9767[1]
My poll card for the upcoming Assembly elections in Northern Ireland. This is confirmation of my being on the electoral register.
And now, let us turn to my breakdown of the upcoming elections occurring across the UK on the 5th May.

Firstly, the following elections will be taking place:

  • Scottish Parliament;
  • Welsh Assembly;
  • Northern Ireland Assembly;
  • Local council elections in England;
  • Mayor of London and London Assembly;
  • Police and crime commissioner elections; and
  • Mayoral elections in Bristol, Liverpool and Salford.

Yes, even though England does not have a devolved government, it is still going to the polls in certain areas on the same day as the devolved nations. I will cover England first, before working through the aforementioned devolved nations.

England

England will see a lot of council elections taking place.

A third of council seats are up for election in 32 of 36 Metropolitan boroughs. Fun fact: all but five of these are Labour held, and include: Barnsley, Birmingham, Bolton, Bradford, Bury, Calderdale, Coventry, Dudley, Gateshead, Kirklees, Knowsley, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, North Tyneside, Oldham, Rochdale, Rotherham, St Helens, Salford, Sandwell, Sefton, Sheffield, Solihull, South Tyneside, Stockport, Sunderland, Tameside, Trafford, Wakefield, Walsall, Wigan, Wirral and Wolverhampton.

Moving on- twelve district councils have all of their seats up for election. These are mostly are Conservative controlled towns, like Colchester, Gloucester and Woking. Seven district councils have half of their seats up for election.

In addition, there are a further 52 councils which see a third of their seats being contested. These comprise of a mix of mostly Labour and Conservative controlled towns across England. They include: Adur, Amber Valley, Basildon, Basingstoke & Deane, Brentwood, Broxbourne, Burnley, Cambridge, Cannock Chase, Carlisle, Castle Point, Cheltenham, Cherwell, Chorley, Colchester, Craven, Crawley, Daventry, Eastleigh, Elmbridge, Epping Forest, Exeter, Fareham, Gloucester, Gosport, Great Yarmouth, Harlow, Harrogate, Hart, Hastings, Havant, Huntingdonshire, Hyndburn, Ipswich, Lincoln, Maidstone, Mole Valley, Newcastle-under-Lyme, North Hertfordshire, Norwich, Nuneaton & Bedworth, Oxford, Pendle, Preston, Redditch, Reigate & Banstead, Rochford, Rossendale, Rugby, Runnymede, Rushmoor, St Albans, South Cambridgeshire, South Lakeland, Stevenage, Stroud, Tamworth, Tandridge, Three Rivers, Tunbridge Wells, Watford, Welwyn Hatfield, West Lancashire, West Oxfordshire, Weymouth & Portland, Winchester, Woking, Worcester, Worthing and Wyre Forest.

To conclude the council elections, three unitary councils – Bristol, Peterborough, Warrington – will see all their seats up for election, whilst 16 others have a third of seats under contest, including: Blackburn with Darwen, Derby, Halton, Hartlepool, Kingston-upon-Hull, Milton Keynes, North East Lincolnshire, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Reading, Slough, Southampton, Southend-on-Sea, Swindon, Thurrock and Wokingham.

And finally, saving the most well-known for last: in London there are 25 Assembly places up for grabs, as well as the main role of mayor. Will Sadiq Khan reclaim the post for Labour, or can Zac Goldsmith somehow manage an upset against predictions, and take the role for the Conservatives? I must say, my money (if I were a gambling gal, which I am not) is on Mr Khan.

And now, let’s take a look at the Celtic nations, starting with Scotland.

Scotland

In Scotland, the nation will vote to elect 129 members to the Scottish Parliament (‘MSPs’). The Scottish Parliament went into dissolution on 24th March 2016, thereby allowing the official period of campaigning to get underway.

Five parties had MSPs in the previous parliament: Scottish National Party (SNP) led by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Scottish Labour Party led by Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Conservatives led by Ruth Davidson, Scottish Liberal Democrats led by Willie Rennie, and lastly the Scottish Greens, led by their co-conveners Patrick Harvie and Maggie Chapman.

The Scottish Parliament uses a system called the Additional Members System, designed to produce approximate proportional representation for each region. There are 8 regions, each sub-divided into smaller constituencies, and there are a total of 73 constituencies. Each constituency elects one MSP by the plurality (first past the post) system of election. Each region elects 7 additional MSPs using an additional member system. A modified D’Hondt method, using the constituency results, is used to elect these additional MSPs.

The SNP, the Scottish Labour Party, the Scottish Conservative Party and the Scottish Liberal Democrats are fielding candidates in all constituencies. The SNP are predicted to remain the largest party, and may in fact gain votes and seats off the back of its landslide victory in last year’s Westminster General election. If 2015 is repeated, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Liberal Democrats could be in trouble. We may end up with the situation whereby the Scottish Conservatives overtake Scottish Labour in terms of seats in Holyrood.

This promises to be an intriguing and exciting election; note that the SNP are floating the idea of holding another Scottish independence referendum in the near future should they be returned to government.

Wales

Wales will take to the polls to elect members of the National Assembly for Wales (AMs). It will be the fifth election for the National Assembly, the third election taken under the rules of the Government of Wales Act 2006 and the first since the Wales Act 2014.

The previous election in 2011 resulted in gains for the Welsh Labour Party, which gained four seats compared to the 2007 election and currently holds 30 seats, exactly half of the Assembly, one short of an overall majority. The party also secured a swing in its favour of over 10 percentage points. The Welsh Conservatives are currently the largest opposition party with 14 seats, a net gain of two from 2007, but former party leader Nick Bourne lost his seat. The junior party in the government coalition, the nationalist Plaid Cymru, suffered a drop in its vote, losing 4 seats and its place in the coalition, with the Labour Party choosing to govern alone after their gains. The Welsh Liberal Democrats lost significantly in the popular vote and returned five AMs, a loss of one.

In elections for the National Assembly for Wales, each voter has two votes in a mixed member system. The first vote is for a candidate to become the Assembly Member for the voter’s constituency, elected by the first past the post system. The second vote is for a regional closed party list of candidates. Additional member seats are allocated from the lists by the d’Hondt method, with constituency results being taken into account in the allocation. The overall result is approximately proportional. Altogether, 60 AMs are elected from the 40 constituencies and five electoral regions, creating an Assembly of 40 constituency AMs and 20 additional AMs. Every constituent is represented by one constituency AM and four regional AMs.

Fun fact: the previous restriction on the ability to stand in both a constituency and a regional list was lifted by the Wales Act 2014. The 2014 Act also removes the ability to dual mandate with the House of Commons; an Assembly Member will no longer be allowed to also be an MP.

Northern Ireland

In Northern Ireland, my little corner of the world, the electorate will head to the ballot box to elect members of the Assembly (MLAs).

Now, there is a bit of explaining to do in relation to the elections being held in 2016. You see, under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 – consider this a constitution of sorts for Northern Ireland – elections to the Assembly were originally for a four-year term, thus there would have been an election due in May 2015, four years after the 2011 election. But following the introduction of the UK Fixed Term Parliaments Act, this date would have clashed with the 2015 UK General Election. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections were postponed for a year to 2016 to avoid this clash. 

In May 2013, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers announced the next Assembly election would be postponed to May 2016, and would be held at fixed intervals of 5 years thereafter. S7 of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 specifies that elections will be held on the first Thursday in May on the fifth (rather than fourth, as previously) calendar year following that in which its predecessor was elected. And so here we are, heading to the polls on the 5th May 2016, five years after the last Assembly election.

Nine parties (and a number of independents) held seats in the Assembly under the previous mandate. The DUP (originally lead by Peter Robinson, who has since been replaced by Arlene Foster) were the largest party overall, and the largest Unionist party with 38 seats and had acquired 29.3% of the vote in 2011. The second largest party overall, and the largest Nationalist party was Sinn Féin, who held 29 seats and had gained 26.3% of the 2011 vote. Gerry Adams is the President of the party, but since he left to enter the Dáil in the South, Martin McGuinness is de facto party leader in the North. The third largest party was the SDLP, originally led by Alasdair McDonnell, since replaced by Colum Eastwood. The SDLP had 14 seats, and had won 13.9% of the vote in 2011. The fourth largest party was the Ulster Unionist Party, led by Tom Elliott until 2012, when he was replaced by Mike Nesbitt. They had had 16 seats after winning 12.9% of the 2011 vote, but by the time of the Assembly’s recent dissolution had 13 seats, reducing the party to the fourth largest.

After the traditional Unionist/Nationalist designed parties, we have the Alliance party, led by David Ford. They had held 8 seats, from the 7.7% share of the 2011 vote. Jim Allister of the TUV held the party’s sole seat, as did Steven Agnew of the Green NI. UKIP held a seat in the guise of David McNarry, and the party which promised so much but sadly burnt out, NI 21, had one seat held by party leader Basil McCrea. McCrea and McNarry will not be contesting their seats this coming May.

Each of the 18 constituencies elects six members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) so there are a total of 108 MLAs.  These elections use a system of proportional representation, known as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) with voters ranking candidates in order of preference. Under STV, candidates are elected according to the share of vote they receive, the size of the electorate, and the number of seats to be filled. Voters may rank candidates in order of preference, giving each a number, and they can choose as many or as few as they like. For each constituency a ‘quota’ must be determined which establishes the minimum number of votes a candidate requires to be elected.

The 2016 Assembly election shall be the first since the end of ‘double jobbing’, or the practice of having a dual mandate. This is again due to the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014, which prohibits someone being elected to the Assembly who is also a member of the UK House of Commons or the Irish Dáil Éireann. At the time the Act was passed, there were three such dual-members: the DUP’s Sammy Wilson (MP for East Antrim and a MLA for East Antrim) and Gregory Campbell (MP for East Londonderry and a MLA for East Londonderry) and the SDLP’s Alasdair McDonnell (MP for Belfast South and a MLA for Belfast South). Wilson and McDonnell resigned from the Assembly after being re-elected to the House of Commons in the 2015 election. Campbell, who was also re-elected as an MP, recently announced his retirement from the Assembly

Police and Crime Commissioners

Voting will take place in 40 police areas in England and Wales, excluding London, where the Mayor is classed as the PCC for the Metropolitan Police.

There are also separate governance arrangements for the City of London police, and Manchester, where the role of PCC is set to be abolished in 2017, and replaced by a directly elected mayor.

And thus concludes my equivalent of a May 2016 guide. I would advise you to follow the elections, if they are relevant to you, because the formation of a new legislature and government is important. This is especially true for fellow law students, given that the both the newly-elected governments and legislatures will propose policy which will result in the creation of bills and law.

Rest assured that I will be following the election in Northern Ireland carefully. As a first time voter, I am excited to finally be able to take part. But this also promises to be an exciting election, with the potential to see the political landscape shift. The 5th May could be a very interesting day indeed. We must wait and see the outcome of the devolved elections. Until then – make sure you vote.

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