LONDON (AP) — Scotland’s governing Scottish National Party was on course Saturday to win its fourth straight parliamentary election and very close to securing a majority that would enable it to make a push for another referendum on independence from the U.K.
With 60 constituencies counted, the SNP had won 51 of the 129 seats and was clearly on course to extend its dominance of Scottish politics. However, given Scotland’s electoral system, also allocates some seats by a form of proportional representation, the party may fall short of the 65 seats it would need in the Edinburgh-based parliament to have a majority.
In Wales, the concluded vote count showed the Labour Party doing better than expected in the parliamentary election as it extended its 22 years in control of the Welsh government.
Ballots continue to be counted from local elections in England, which already have been particularly good for U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party. But it’s the Scottish election that could have the biggest U.K.-wide implications by fast-tracking another referendum on Scotland’s future within the U.K.
Were the SNP to win a majority, its leader, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, would argue that she has a mandate to call another referendum. Were the party to fall short, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has the ultimate power to allow a referendum, could argue that she didn’t. On Saturday, he wrote in the Daily Telegraph newspaper that another referendum would be “irresponsible and reckless” in the “current context” as Britain emerges from the coronavirus crisis.
Speaking after winning her seat in Glasgow on Friday, Sturgeon said her immediate priority would be to deal with the pandemic and “then when the time is right to offer this country the choice of a better future.”
Scotland has been part of the U.K. since 1707 and the issue of Scottish independence appeared settled when Scottish voters rejected secession by 55%-45% in a 2014 referendum. But the U.K.-wide decision in 2016 to leave the European Union ran against the wishes of most Scots — 62% voted in favor of staying within the bloc while most voters in England and Wales wanted to leave. That gave the Scottish nationalist cause fresh legs.
Scotland’s deputy first minister, John Swinney, said that the party would still have the right to call an election if it fell short but enough other pro-independence members were elected, such as from the Scottish Greens.
“I’m very confident that will be the case,” he told the BBC.
So far the elections in England have been largely positive for Johnson’s Conservatives, notably its victory in a special election in the post-industrial town of Hartlepool for a parliamentary seat that the main opposition Labour Party had held since 1974. The win extended the party’s grip on parts of England that had been Labour strongholds for decades, if not a century. Many of these seats that have flipped from red to blue voted heavily in 2016 for Britain’s departure from the European Union. The speedy rollout of coronavirus vaccines also appears to have given the Conservatives a boost.
On what was dubbed Super Thursday, around 50 million voters were eligible to take part in scores of elections, some of which had been postponed a year because of the pandemic that has left the U.K. with Europe’s largest coronavirus death toll.
For the Labour Party and its new leader, Keir Starmer, the Hartlepool result was a huge disappointment and has led to another bout of soul-searching in a party that in 2019 suffered its worst general election performance since 1935.
Starmer said he took full responsibility for the party’s defeat in Hartlepool, adding that he would soon be setting out a strategy of how it can reconnect with its traditional voters. He didn’t give further details.
Though Labour is clearly losing ground in its traditional heartlands, its support held up in many other parts of England, such as the big cities. The party won a series of mayoral elections, including in Liverpool. London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham were expected to win second terms.
Labour also did particularly well in Wales, retaining its grip on power after winning half of the seats in the Welsh parliament, just one short of a majority. Mark Drakeford, who will remain as first minister, said the party will be “radical” and “ambitious” in government.