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TONY TRAVERS - TRIPLE ELECTIONS WILL TEST SCOTTISH SYSTEM AND ENGLISH OPINION

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This year sees a 'super Thursday' of local, Scottish and Welsh elections. In England there will be all-out local el...
This year sees a 'super Thursday' of local, Scottish and Welsh elections. In England there will be all-out local elections in many unitary and district councils, plus one-third contests in most others, including metropolitan districts. Wales faces an assembly election. But it is in Scotland that the most inclusive and radical contests, both for the Edinburgh Parliament and local government, will take place, with a new voting system for council elections.

Only in Britain would it be possible to hold elections using three different kinds of voting system on the same day. English local government will keep the traditional first-past-the-post system. Wales will use the 'additional member' form of proportional representation for its assembly election, as in 1999 and 2003. Scotland will use the 'additional member' system for Holyrood, but will use a single transferable vote (STV) for council contests.

Results will dribble in from late on Thursday night until some time on Saturday. Many authorities now delay counting until Friday to cut overtime costs. But Scotland's STV council elections will, if Northern Ireland is any guide, take until the weekend to complete.

The move to a new voting system for Scottish local government will intensify pressures for change in England and Wales. A hung Parliament at Westminster in, say, 2009 would undoubtedly trigger intense Liberal Democrat pressure for the use of PR in the rest of Britain's local elections. The number of councils under the majority control of one party is likely to tumble. In Scotland, Labour is likely to be the biggest loser of seats, while the SNP should gain significantly.

As in earlier years, the local, assembly and Scottish parliamentary elections will be treated as a vast, publicly funded opinion poll about Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Menzies Campbell. There will also be interest in whether the marginal increase in turnout that has occurred in recent local polls can be maintained. Scotland's elections will indicate the longer-term future of the UK, while the Scottish Nationalist Party will be seeking to hold a referendum on independence.

Local elections have in recent years provided quirky results that have been unhelpful for pundits seeking to make judgments about national swings. The rise of the British National Party is a phenomenon whose full extent is yet unknown. Recent council by-election results suggest there is a risk there will be more BNP gains this year. The Respect party may have reached its zenith, although the long-term effect of Muslim and other religious politics is hard to predict. Last year saw the growth of single-issue, anti-incumbent results in parts of London. Will these spread elsewhere?

Voting is still the most important factor in guaranteeing local government its legitimacy and autonomy. Britain's flagging, sagging democracy has never had a greater need for robust and convincing local elections.

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