Parsing through the results of the 2022 elections in the UK, it's hard to miss how ordinary it was.

People aren't happy with the current Parliament. They're anxious about rising costs and frightened to think of what next winter's heating bill will be. Perhaps their biggest slice of ire is reserved for the Prime Minister, who seems determined to follow through on his agenda despite its massive unpopularity, all while denying any culpability in Partygate.

In fact, he doesn't even like the word 'Partygate'.

None of this - or any of the other events over the past year provoked anything like what happened in the 2021 local elections. So cataclysmic was that year's round of voting that it prompted several shifts in the way elections are held and managed.

Changes to elections procedures and behaviours
A photo ID will be required to cast a ballot. (Northern Ireland has had this stipulation in place since 2003.)
Several constituencies that relied on the supplementary vote system were changed to first-past-the-post.
Laws around voter intimidation and violence of all types, including physical violence, have been clarified and reinforced.
Accessibility to the polls has been improved through a variety of measures, from modified infrastructure to removing restrictions on who can accompany disabled voters to the polls.
The rules for campaign expenditures have been more clearly defined and expanded.
Political mudslinging, intimidation and abuse now has stiffer penalties for those who engage in such tactics.
Digital political materials must bear an imprint of the candidate and/or campaign disseminating them.

Those are just a few of the changes brought about by the 2021 elections but those few, short sentences don't give you a full look at the election in review. That's what the rest of this article means to do.

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Barriers to Campaigning

The 2021 elections were dramatic in part because the previous year's polls were closed due to COVID, meaning all of the 1/3 and 1/2 elections scheduled for 2020 were postponed for a full year. Furthermore, as we well know, this infernal virus didn't contain itself to just one year. Still today, we're living in its shadow.

Candidates were allowed to campaign after massive outcry
During the 2021 elections, candidates were finally allowed to campaign but only if they observed all safety rules. Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

During the 2021 campaign season, candidates and their proxies were severely limited in how much outreach they could conduct. Door-knocking, leafletting, meet-and-greets and other typical campaign activities were kept to a minimum or banned outright. This naturally provoked substantial outrage; how were candidates supposed to get their message out if they couldn't meet anyone?

And, besides, COVID restrictions didn't specifically outline any restrictions on campaign activities.

Rather late in the campaign season, on February 26, the government finally relented. Campaigners were allowed to leaflet and go door to door, provided they kept their distance as they addressed their constituents, wore their masks and followed all other prescribed safety protocols.

The coronavirus may have been the biggest barrier to the 2021 campaign season but Prince Phillip's passing also had a dramatic and immediate effect. As the countries plunged into mourning, all of the political parties suspended all campaign activity for a few days.

How did all of this affect the outcome of the 2021 elections? More importantly, how did 2021's election fallout impact the 2022 elections? Read our in-depth election analysis to find out.

What was on the Table

Across the UK, all of the elections meant to be held in 2020 would be held in 2021, concurrent with that year's scheduled elections. That meant that twice the seats were up for grabs and twice the constituencies would cast their votes.

England

Local elections in England are typically held in four-year cycles, for the most part, with the first three years seeing 1/3 of the electorate regenerated each year and the fourth year when no elections are held. Some districts hold half-elections, wherein half of the government seats are up for grabs.

In normal times, this tends to be a very efficient system that distributes the responsibility of voting across a longer period so that voters do not suffer election burnout or confusion over the most pressing issues of the day. It also gives the advantage that, at any given time, 2/3 of the electorate is well-seasoned in their work.

Finally, with only 1/3 of all the seats on the ballot in any given year, election workers have fewer ballots to count, which means they can deliver election results much faster.

The 2021 local elections were negatively impacted by all of those issues and more. For one, there was substantial public ire to contend with; people weren't happy with the government's handling of COVID. This surely impacted their voting preferences. And then, with all the seats up for grabs and all the candidates vying for them, there surely must have been a cacophony of messaging.

Who stood for what and who promised what?

In a sense, COVID made the election cheap. For instance, Labour's main selling point was pay raises for nurses. Indeed, besides, coronavirus-related issues, there wasn't much to the parties' platforms. At least, not much resonated with the voters or had far-reaching impacts.

Voters all agreed on supporting the NHS
The NHS was one political issue that voters could agree on. Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash

Wales

The 2021 election in Wales marked the first electoral event in which 16-year-olds could cast a ballot; it was also the first election that foreign national legal residents were allowed to participate in. Both of those changes came about thanks to the Senedd and Elections Act of 2020.

It's also the first election held under the governing body's new name; the Welsh Parliamentary Election. As such, pretty much everything was on the table, including all four police and crime commissioner elections.

Scotland

As in Wales, so too in Scotland: all 129 parliamentary seats were on the ballot in 2021. Also, the 2021 election was the first run under the Scottish Elections Franchise and Representation Act, which accords the right to vote to felons who've served less than 12 months in prison. This concession expanded the electorate, as did allow foreign nationals legally residing in Scotland access to the polls.

UK Parliament By-Elections

By-elections generally take place outside of established election windows; they're held to replace an official who has vacated their position - either by leaving it (resigning) or because of their sudden demise. They may also be held if a counsellor moves to the House of Lords or is declared bankrupt.

Again thanks to COVID, by-elections were pushed back until it would be relatively safe to campaign.

Thus, six by-elections were held in 2021, one of which, in the constituency of Hartlepool, was held at the same time as the general elections. The others were:

  • for Airdrie and Shotts, which took place on May 13, a week after the general elections
  • in Chesham and Amersham, on June 17th
  • Batley and Spen's by-election took place on July 1st.
  • for Old Beckley and Sidcup: on December 2nd
  • in North Shropshire, the by-election took place on December 16

It's unusual that so many by-elections would take place in a single election year - and also because those seats remained vacant for so long. But then, that's just one more aspect that made the 2021 elections remarkable.

Police and Crime Commissioner Elections

Much was made over Dame Cressida Dick's abrupt departure this year, under accusations of racism and misogyny and following a no-confidence vote by Mayor Khan. However, few reflect on the massive changes brought about in the 2021 Crime Commissioner and Police elections.

Like all the other UK elections, these were not held in 2020. However, unlike council and unitary authority elections, it was only the third time these elections were held. All of Wales (4 seats) and practically all of England (35 constituencies) featured candidates for these offices in 2021.

In 2021, voters received multiple ballots to reflect the expanded election
The many ballots voters received by mail in the 2021 election underscore how strange that year's voting cycle was. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Domdomegg

Who Came Out Ahead

Maybe it was because voters were beside themselves with worry over the coronavirus. Or perhaps it was because no candidate got to put on a good campaign. It could also be that the voting public wasn't informed, or simply wasn't frustrated or outraged enough to vote for a change to the status quo in 2021.

Whatever the reason(s), across England, Conservatives held their majority and even snatched a few seats away from Labour after the 2021 elections. Also, some districts that had been governed by a coalition were taken over by Conservatives. Of course, Labour claimed a few victories but, in the end, too few to balance out the districts and mayorships they lost.

Throughout the UK, the battle for parliamentary seats is generally represented by Labour and Conservatives; in the Welsh Parliament, Labour claimed the majority, with Conservatives and the Green Party being fairly evenly balanced.

As for England and Wales Police and Crime Commissioner elections, the Tories ruled the day. They claimed a net gain of 10 commissioner positions while Labour lost six and, in Wales, Plaid Cymru lost 1.

If you're thinking that those numbers don't quite add up; you're spot on. The unaccounted-for seats came about thanks to the Policing and Crime Act (2017), which expanded commissioners' responsibilities to include the Fire Authority. Thus, four jurisdictions in England were added to the ballots.

These new regions, added to the six lost Labour seats, account for Conservatives' gains.

Unlike in England and Wales, the Scottish National Party took precedence over Labour and Tory. Although Conservatives held all their seats in Parliament, they were down slightly in their percentage of constituency votes but ticked up in their regional votes, albeit by less than a percentage point. Labour, by contrast, lost two Parliament seats and more than a percentage point from the previous election's regional vote numbers.

Labour also lost a full percentage point on the constituency vote, compared to the last election.

Now informed, if anyone asks you, years from now, what happened in the 2021 local elections in the UK, you may rightly answer "Goodness! What didn't happen!"

How would you answer if someone asked how often are local elections held in the UK, though?

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.