Belfast Telegraph

Candidates start bidding for election in major UK-wide polls

Candidates have been putting themselves forward for election as nominations begin to close in the huge set of UK-wide elections taking place on May 5, one year on from the general election and just weeks before the EU in-out referendum.

The diverse polls on Super Thursday will give some 45 million registered voters the chance to vote in an exceptional combined elections event. It is possible that registered voters in just a few wards in the Greater Manchester area will be the only ones not facing a choice at the ballot box.

The polls cover: Scottish Parliament; Welsh Assembly; Northern Ireland Assembly; London Assembly; London, Bristol, Liverpool and Salford mayors; 124 English councils; 40 police and crime commissioners in England and Wales; and Commons by-elections at Ogmore and Sheffield Brightside & Hillsborough.

The PCC election due in Greater Manchester has been cancelled as the commissioner's powers are due to be transferred to a new directly-elected mayor next year. London similarly has no PCC as powers overseeing the Met fall to the mayor.

Nominations for the various elections close at different days and times: today at 1600 - London mayor and Assembly; tomorrow at 1600 - Scottish Parliament; Thursday April 7 at 1600 - Welsh Assembly, English councils, police commissioners; Tuesday April 12 at 1300 - Northern Ireland Assembly.

To add to the complexity, four different voting systems will be in use: first-past-the-post (FPTP) for English council elections and the two Commons by-elections; FPTP plus proportional representation (PR) regional top-up seats for parliamentary or assembly polls in Scotland, Wales and London; supplementary voting (SV) for mayoral and police elections; and single transferable vote (STV) for the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Nearly all registered voters will have been able to vote four times across the entire UK in the space of less than three years. Starting with the Euro elections in May 2014, followed by the general election in May 2015, the UK electorate then faces Super Thursday on May 5 and the EU referendum on June 23.

The police and crime commissioner polls covering England and Wales except for London and Greater Manchester appear to be one of the reasons for the nearly universal nature of the May 5 elections.

It will be only the second time the police elections have taken place. The first time was in November 2012 after the new police commissioner role was created. Those polls were mired in controversy over a low turnout and a lack of information for voters. Two subsequent by-elections have failed to inspire the voting public, recording low turnouts.

Another factor is that the London Assembly elections, last held in May 2012, coincide this time with those for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, last held in May 2011.

The focus of attention in the May 5 polls will be the performance of the main parties in their first major test since the general election.

Labour, under left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, will face close scrutiny. Some disaffected backbenchers have warned of a possible leadership challenge if the party fares badly, particularly in the English council elections.

Labour will be under pressure from the SNP in Scotland, following the Scottish Nationalists' landslide north of the border last May, and will be fighting hard to secure a majority in the Welsh Assembly.

The question for the Tories will be whether they can build on their surprise general election victory when the party is deeply split over the EU referendum.

The Liberal Democrats have seen some council by-election successes since they were reduced to just eight MPs last May. They will be seeking to show they can climb back from their massive defeat then.

Ukip, which won nearly four million votes but held only one seat at the general election, has seen falls in the party's vote shares in council by-elections. It has lost its majority on Thanet District Council owing to defections after dramatically taking control of it in last May's local elections.

As Nigel Farage's party focuses on the EU referendum, its fortunes in the May elections will be watched keenly.

The Greens' performance will also be under scrutiny after it received more than a million votes at the Westminster poll and held only one seat.

The SNP failed to win the Scottish independence referendum in September 2014 but made sweeping gains at the general election, leaving Labour, Lib Dems and Tories with just one MP each north of the border.

Since then the SNP has continued its onward march with swings in its favour in nearly all Scottish council by-elections that have taken place. The key question in May will be whether the party can increase its current slight working majority to dominate the Scottish Parliament and by how much.

The SNP is expected to do well in the 73 FPTP constituencies but the results from the 56 regional PR top-up seats should determine the outcome.

Plaid Cymru failed to make headway at the general election when it held three seats and will be under pressure to advance in the Welsh Assembly elections. Labour currently governs Wales as the largest party, with half of the 60 Assembly seats.

The Northern Ireland Assembly elections come just weeks after a general election in the Republic of Ireland which delivered an inconclusive result, leaving the main parties facing a complex challenge to try to form a coalition government. Fine Gael and Labour, the previous coalition government partners, lost seats while Fianna Fail saw gains but not enough to recover from its 2011 drubbing over the economic crisis.

Sinn Fein won 23 seats, up from the 14 seats it won in the Dail elections in 2011. The party will be seeking to build on those gains in contesting the Northern Ireland Assembly polls.

The DUP will go into the assembly elections under new leader Arlene Foster after Peter Robinson stepped down as party leader and as Northern Ireland First Minister following an agreement to overcome a crisis at Stormont last summer.

The London mayoral contest to replace Boris Johnson, now Tory MP for Uxbridge & Ruislip South, is expected to be hard fought, with issues such as housing and Heathrow airport expansion at centre stage. The frontrunners are Richmond Park MP Zac Goldsmith for the Conservatives and Tooting MP Sadiq Khan for Labour but other candidates are due to include Caroline Pidgeon for the Lib Dems, Sian Berry for the Greens and Peter Whittle for Ukip.

Following successes for Labour in London at the general election, the battle between Labour and the Conservatives in the capital's mayoral and assembly polls will get close attention.

The set of UK-wide May elections is expected to see controversy over "disappearing" voters, following the Government's decision to end the transition from household to individual electoral registration (IER) last December.

Mr Corbyn used his first party conference speech as Labour Leader last September to highlight claims two million voters could be removed from the electoral register and to accuse the Tories of trying to gerrymander the May polls. He urged a campaign to get people to register to vote.

The Government defended the decision to finalise the IER change in time for the May polls, saying it would remove "phantom voters" and reduce electoral fraud.

The Electoral Commission reported last month that the UK electorate numbered 43,478,635 as at December 1 2015. It noted 1.3m applications to register to vote had been received since then.

However, the electorate at the time of the general election last May was recorded as being 46.4m.

:: The EU in-out referendum has been billed as a "once in a generation" opportunity for voters to decide the UK's relationship with the EU. It will see referendum votes counted overnight in 380 council areas across Britain plus one voting area for Northern Ireland and one for Gibraltar - 382 areas in total.

The referendum question on the ballot paper has been set as: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?" The response options for voters will be: "Remain a member of the European Union" or "Leave the European Union".

The final outcome will be announced in Manchester by Electoral Commission chair Jenny Watson as Chief Counting Officer for the referendum.

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