UK Politics

Landale online: Many polls, one question

David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband

This Thursday millions of us have the chance to vote.

We can vote to elect a council in England, a parliament in Scotland, assemblies in Wales and Northern Ireland.

We can - if we live in parts of Leicester or Belfast - vote to elect a member of parliament.

If we live in Middlesbrough, Mansfield, Bedford, Torbay and yes, lucky old Leicester again, we can even elect some mayors.

All of us can vote to change the way we will elect every MP at the next general election.

How we vote in these elections and referendum may, of course, have some direct impact on our lives.

The political colour of our local authority may shape the way our services are cut.

A change in the balance of power in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would have a direct effect on voters there.

The nature of the electoral system may change the make up of the new government in four years time.

But perhaps the biggest short term impact of these elections will be on how they change the coalition in Westminster that governs our lives now.

AV referendum

Take, for example, the referendum on the alternative vote.

Image caption Polls suggest the SNP is on course to be the largest party in Scotland

This is big stuff, the first national referendum since 1975.

Yet for all the hyperbole of the competing campaigns, the consensus among election experts is that the alternative vote would have quite a modest impact.

It would certainly not change anything for four years. So the most significant short term consequence the referendum result will be on the current government.

If the Yes team win, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg will, in the eyes of many in his party, be transformed from zero to hero.

His sin of sitting down to break bread and share Cabinet seats with the Conservatives in coalition will be forgiven.

Coalition will have been worth it; electoral change the soothing balm to heal the pain of raised tuition fees.

And in turn, it will be David Cameron who will be in trouble, above all with those on the right of his party.

Restoring trust

The prime minister will be the man who lost the referendum as well as the election, despite throwing his party's substantial resources and money behind the No campaign. The man who gave the Lib Dems an inch and they took a mile.

But if the people say "no", then it will be Mr Clegg who will be in trouble with his party.

He will be seen by some as having squandered the Lib Dems' best chance in a generation of securing even a modest change in the voting system, a holy grail and sine qua non for many in his party.

Many Lib Dems will ask what the point is of being in the coalition.

At worst, Nick Clegg will face a leadership challenge and the Lib Dems will begin the slow process of disengaging from the coalition government.

At best, he will face a serious party management problem.

His coalition partner, David Cameron, will have to decide what he needs to do to repair the alliance and restore some of the trust lost during a bruising campaign.

What concessions, if any, would Mr Cameron feel he needs to give to keep his partners happy?

Further movement on House of Lords reform? A slower introduction of police commissioners? Faster tax cuts to the less well off?

Many Tory MPs oppose any idea of the Lib Dems winning a consolation prize in the event of a No vote.

Local elections

The local elections in most of England - bar London and a few counties - will exacerbate all this.

Both the Lib Dems and the Conservatives are braced for the kind of heavy losses that all governing parties tend to experience.

As a governing party, the Lib Dems can no longer present themselves as a left of centre alternative to Labour in the North of England or as the natural opposition to the Tories in the South.

For the Lib Dems this will be a novel experience.

They have never seen hundreds of colleagues dispatched into electoral oblivion by the electorate and their party is much more reliant on its town hall membership than others.

So how will that Lib Dem base react to losses after so many years of gains? What is the point, some may ask, of being in coalition?

For the Conservatives, the question is simple.

Spending cuts

Do they take the losses that governing parties get, particularly when they are cutting spending and raising taxes, or do the numbers signify something deeper?

A loss of a council base that weakens party morale and begins the slow start of the decline that eventually makes it harder to win parliamentary seats?

Image caption Will the Welsh Assembly election spell the end of the Labour-Plaid coalition?

For Labour, the question is equally straightforward: Will the party win enough seats to show that they are doing more than just recouping the seats they lost while in government, or will it do better, and prove a revival of its fortunes above all in the south of England?

And in the event of a No vote in the referendum, are the town hall gains enough for Ed Miliband to reunite his party that has split deeply over the alternative vote?

Already the pollsters are saying Labour needs to win 1,000 seats or more to reflect the opinion poll figures.

Devolved elections

In Scotland, the elections for the parliament in Holyrood are being fought on new boundaries so there is some uncertainty in the mix.

The Scottish Nationalists are ahead in the polls, suggesting they may remain the largest party, unless a last minute surge by Labour wipes the smile from SNP leader Alex Salmond's face.

Image caption Northern Ireland's party leaders took part in a televised debate

The question is why, with an unpopular, cutting Tory government in London, many Scots do not appear to see Labour as their vehicle of opposition to the folks in Westminster.

A poor result in Scotland would counter the party's gains in England.

In Wales, Labour enters these elections from a stronger base.

The question for voters here is whether or not they want Labour to govern by itself or whether it should remain in coalition, as it is now, with the Welsh Nationalists, Plaid Cymru.

In Northern Ireland, few are expecting the elections to change much in the 108 seat assembly.

The only question is whether Sinn Fein can secure a surprise and unexpected late surge and become the biggest party, with Martin McGuinness replacing Peter Robinson as first minister.

So these elections on Thursday are geographically varied and driven by different dynamics.

But it is their impact on the coalition that will be the story on Friday morning.