Scottish nationalists win, Corbyn hangs on in UK local polls

Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Nicola Sturgeon reacts after a positive result for her party at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow, on May 6, 2016.
Leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP), Nicola Sturgeon reacts after a positive result for her party at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow, on May 6, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

LONDON (AFP) – Scottish nationalists won a third term in power but lost their outright majority Friday (May 6) in one of a series of local and regional elections seen as a key test for Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Britain’s main opposition Labour Party came third in the vote for Scotland’s devolved parliament but its candidate Sadiq Khan is expected to clinch victory in London to become the city’s first Muslim mayor.

Leftwinger Corbyn, under pressure from centrists in his party since taking power last year, insisted his party had “hung on” and surpassed expectations.

“All across England last night we were getting predictions that we were going to lose councils. We didn’t,” he said. “We hung on and we grew support in a lot of places.” While the results may have done enough to damp down talk of a leadership challenge to Corbyn for now, they will not ease disquiet among some MPs about his leadership.

With results from 87 councils in, Labour had 43, down one, and 846 seats, down 22.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives had control of an unchanged 23 councils and 520 seats, up seven.

North of the border, Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) claimed the result as a major victory as her party seeks a mandate to move towards a second independence referendum.

“What is now beyond doubt is that the SNP has won a third consecutive Scottish Parliament election.” Sturgeon said. “We have tonight made history.” However, the 63 seats out of 129 won by the SNP fell short of polling ahead of the election which had suggested the party would retain its majority.

The SNP, which previously had 69 seats, will now have to seek the support of a smaller party like the Greens to govern.

The result of London’s mayoral election is expected later Friday, with Khan tipped to secure an easy victory over Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative candidate.

Early returns put Khan well ahead of Goldsmith in first preference votes.

The often dirty race to replace the Tories’ Boris Johnson has pitched two very different candidates against each other – Khan, the Muslim son of a bus driver and a seamstress, against Goldsmith, the multimillionaire son of a financier.

The voting day dubbed “Super Thursday” came after a bitter few weeks of political sniping between the Conservatives and Labour.

Corbyn set up an inquiry into anti-Semitism and racism in Labour after former London mayor Ken Livingstone was suspended from the party for claiming Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler supported Zionism.

Several other Labour politicians were also suspended.

Cameron himself is also grappling with deep splits in his party ahead of the June 23 referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.

Some counts were expected to stretch into the weekend as 45 million eligible voters were asked to cast their ballots in contests across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The mayoral campaign has been especially ugly, with Khan forced to deny support for Islamic extremists and Goldsmith rejecting claims of playing on voters’ religious prejudices.

Khan has dismissed attempts to link him with Islamic extremists as “desperate stuff”, but Cameron repeated the claims in angry clashes with Corbyn in parliament on Wednesday.

Aside from the SNP’s win, the other big story in Scotland was the success of the Scottish Conservatives, who came second with 31 seats.

The party has been deeply unpopular in Scotland since the 1980s premiership of Margaret Thatcher but its fortunes have turned around under current leader Ruth Davidson.

Davidson is a charismatic and openly gay 37-year old whose cheery, no-nonsense style and proficient use of social media has fuelled her party’s success.

The decline of Labour – Scotland’s dominant party until recently but which slumped to third with 24 seats – also helped.

Sturgeon has said June’s referendum on Britain’s EU membership could fuel calls for another independence vote if Britain as a whole elects to leave the EU but Scotland votes to stay in.

Scotland rejected independence at a referendum in 2014.

The Scottish Parliament has devolved powers from Westminster over most areas of domestic policy, including health and education.

In Wales, Labour won by far the most seats – 29 out of 60, down one – meaning it retains power in the devolved administration for a fifth successive term.