LONDON (AP) — Millions of British voters were casting ballots Thursday in local and regional elections, and the choices of Scottish voters in particular could have huge repercussions for the future of the United Kingdom.
On what has been 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.
At stake is the make-up of devolved governments in Scotland and Wales and the next mayors for England's big cities, including London and Manchester. Thousands of council members, police commissioners and other local authorities are also seeking seats. No elections were taking place in Northern Ireland.
A special election will also fill the U.K. parliamentary seat of Hartlepool in the north of England. The vote there could show whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative Party is still making inroads into parts of the country that the Labour Party has dominated for decades.
The result of that race is expected early Friday, but the outcomes of the other elections will take longer, with some possibly not emerging until Sunday, partly because of restrictions related to the pandemic.
More voters than usual were expected to cast postal ballots, while those still going to polling stations were encouraged to bring their own pen and wear a face mask. With traditional doorstep campaigning restricted because of the pandemic, there are concerns about low turnout in many of the races.
The election that could have the biggest U.K-wide implications was taking place in Scotland, where the governing Scottish National Party is looking for a renewed mandate that could speed up the prospect of a second independence referendum.
The party's leader, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, says she's is looking to push for another referendum if her party wins a majority in the parliament in Edinburgh, but only after the pandemic has been dealt with and the economic recovery from it is on track.
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.
“I hope the SNP win because we’re looking for a second independence referendum, especially since we’ve now left the EU," 18-year-old student Emily Blair said while lining up to vote in Edinburgh.
As U.K. prime minister, Johnson has the ultimate authority to permit another referendum on Scottish independence. So far he has refused, setting up the possibility of renewed tensions between his government and Sturgeon's devolved administration if the SNP wins a majority in the 129-seat assembly in Edinburgh. The nationalists are expected to win the most seats but polls before the election indicate it's not clear if they will get a majority.
“I think it will be extremely close," said Roddy Millar, a 53-year-old businessman in Edinburgh. "I suspect the SNP might edge it, but I’m hoping not, because I think it just leads to much more dislocation and uncertainty and instability.”
It's also an important Election Day for the Labour Party, a year into the leadership of Keir Starmer, whose left-wing predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn, led the party in 2019 to its worst election performance since 1935.
Starmer has impressed as the leader of the opposition within the British Parliament but has been unable to go out on the stump to generate enthusiasm around the country because of the pandemic.
Labour Party candidates Sadiq Khan and Andy Burnham are expected to easily win second terms as the mayors of London and Manchester, but a Labour defeat in the special election in Hartlepool would be particularly disappointing for the party. Labour has held the seat since the constituency was created in 1974. Losing it would show that the opposition party is struggling to hold onto support in the “red wall” in north England, which has been its bedrock base for a century.
Although the U.K. has recorded Europe's highest virus-related death toll at more than 127,500 and witnessed one of the world's worst recessions over the past year, Johnson's Conservatives are hoping to find support in the traditional Labour heartlands of central and northern England due to the success of Britain's vaccine rollout.
Britain has given two-thirds of its adults at least one vaccine dose, raising the prospect of a return to some type of normal life and summer holidays over the coming months. According to the Bank of England on Thursday, the British economy this year could be headed for its highest annual growth rate since 1941.
Jo Kearney in Edinburgh contributed to this report.