Keir Starmer thanked Labour activists for calling as many as 1.7 million voters in recent weeks, as his team braced themselves for a challenging weekend after polls closed in the UK’s first major elections to be held during the pandemic.
Party sources were downbeat about their prospects of holding Hartlepool in a crucial byelection, with activists reporting low turnout in Labour-voting areas. “It’s going to be a very, very difficult night,” said one party strategist, adding that Starmer would “take it on the chin” if the seat is lost for the first time in half a century.
The Labour leader hit the phones himself on Thursday after voting with his wife, Victoria, near their north London home.
Every voter in Great Britain had the opportunity to cast their ballot on Thursday. In Scotland, all 129 seats in the Holyrood parliament are up for grabs, while Wales is also electing a new parliament. In England, there are 143 councils and 13 local mayoralties in play.
Some elections – including the London mayoralty, which Labour’s Sadiq Khan is hoping to hold – were postponed from May 2020, when the country was in lockdown because of the Covid pandemic.
Boris Johnson cast his vote in Westminster on Thursday with his partner, Carrie Symonds: a rare joint public appearance days after a scandal erupted over whether the prime minister solicited funds from donors to pay for a costly refurbishment of No 10.
Johnson urged the public to “get out and vote, folks!” after attending a polling station at Methodist Central Hall, close to the Houses of Parliament in London.
Downing Street will be closely watching the results of the critical Scottish election, with the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon hoping to win a ringing endorsement of her plan to hold a fresh referendum on independence.
The Tories are also hoping for signs that they are cementing support on local councils in the “red wall” areas of England where they won their Westminster seats for the first time in 2019.
Due to restrictions gradually easing in recent weeks, canvassers have been able to deliver leaflets and carry out door-to-door campaigning, though large-scale rallies have not been possible.
With the Commons in recess to allow MPs to campaign, politicians and activists fanned out across the country in a last-minute “get out the vote” drive on Thursday. Voters were advised to take their own pencil to the polling station, to help minimise the risk of Covid contamination.
The elections – the first nationwide poll since Starmer took over as leader year ago – are widely viewed in Labour as a key electoral test of his leadership, and earlier in the week he said he would “carry the can” for the party’s performance.
Starmer’s team hope that by the time all the results are published, “red shoots” in other parts of the country – such as southwest England – will offset the feared loss of Hartlepool.
Labour is expected to hold on to the London and Greater Manchester mayoralties – though there were reports of weak turnout in the capital – but the Tories hope Andy Street can hold on in the West Midlands.
They also hope Ben Houchen can win Teesside again. Houchen’s surprise victory in 2017 helped his party establish a bridgehead in north-east England, and he has been a vocal advocate of extra investment in the local area, helped by high-profile visits from cabinet ministers.
The Liberal Democrat leader, Ed Davey, who has been in charge since August 2020, will also face scrutiny over his party’s performance in the coming days.
Davey’s party hopes to pick up council seats in areas including Sunderland in the north-east – which he visited during the campaign – as well as in its traditional strongholds of the south-west.
The Greens are chasing new council seats in areas beyond their traditional territories, for example northern towns like Bolton and Knowsley, where they hope to tempt disaffected Labour voters.
In the London mayoral election, the Greens are aiming to again beat the Lib Dems to third place, with one recent poll putting their candidate, Siân Berry, on twice the support of the Lib Dems’ Luisa Porritt – though in other polls Porritt is ahead.
Results for English councils are expected to be announced throughout Friday, with the outcome in Scotland and Wales not expected to be clear until the weekend.
Westminster MPs will return to the Commons next week for the Queen’s speech, in which she will set out the UK government’s priorities for the coming months. Johnson hopes to switch the focus away from the pandemic to his promises to “build back better” and “level up” the country.