Local Elections: A Plague on Both Your Houses?
The Local Elections were terrible for both of the main parties. It’s not fair to say that the level of disaster was equal for the two parties, given that the Conservatives lost a staggering thirteen hundred seats, but after nine years in opposition, Labour should be taking a number of seats from the Conservatives rather than losing seats overall. In the context of this upheaval, the Liberal Democrats, Greens and local Independents were all historically successful, with the Lib Dems in particular taking more than 700 seats, their best result by a significant margin. The consensus of the commentariat in the wake of these results is one of hope for the Liberal Democrats, running alongside a suggestion that the two-party system may be crumbling. For Remainers, the rise of the Liberal Democrats and Greens as explicitly anti-Brexit parties has been used to strengthen the argument for a People’s Vote, while Brexiteers have seen the defeat of the main parties as a call to ‘just get on with Brexit’. Ultimately, the conclusion to draw from these elections is that one should not draw conclusions from these elections (although you should definitely continue to read this article).
Local elections and general elections have been shown throughout the years not to have a high correlation. People vote very differently when it comes to choosing a Prime Minister and a government to deal with issues like the NHS and national defence than how they vote to deal with bin collection, meaning voters are much more likely to vote as a protest in local elections. 2017 provided the starkest example of this, with Jeremy Corbyn reducing the majority of the Conservatives despite suffering a very poor local election result just weeks before the national campaign. This is not to entirely discount the importance of the local elections. They demonstrate trends. In this instance, they demonstrate that the level of anger towards Labour, and in particular the Conservatives, is exactly as significant as it was built up to be. While the primary beneficiary of this anger was in this instance the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, it does not follow that those who have fallen out with Labour and the Conservatives are all in favour of a People’s Vote. Anecdotal evidence from some voters in the North suggest that Remain voters received votes from pro-Brexit voters, who seem likely to vote for the Brexit Party in the upcoming European elections.
Those European elections seem likely to paint a fuller picture of British politics than the local elections. It remains to be seen if the Remain parties will maintain their success moving forward, but it seems very likely that Labour and the Conservatives will take a beating at the European Parliament elections. The Conservatives in particular seem to be in big trouble. With the Brexit party exploding into life, it is unclear to see who will vote for the Conservatives. In European elections in particular, the party’s pro-Remain voters will likely defect to the Liberal Democrats and other Remain parties, while the pro-Brexit older voters upon whom the Conservatives have relied for recent electoral success seem likely to defect to the Brexit party. While Labour can rely on most of their natural voters among the young, socially liberal urban population to vote for them regardless, even if some more fervent pro-Europeans will defect to the Lib Dems and Change UK, the Conservatives’ space has been squeezed by the Brexit Party, which can use UKIP to make it seem more reasonable than Farage’s UKIP ever could.
Even if the smaller parties fail to hold on to the success they garnered in the local elections, the ramifications of the results for government seem wide-ranging. The government seems to have taken the results as a sign that, to rescue their electoral chances, they must push Brexit through immediately, to head off the Brexit party and give themselves an identity beyond their failure to deliver Brexit. To this end, they have apparently offered Labour a temporary customs union to support the withdrawal agreement. While the rise of the small parties cannot be read into too far, the trouble the Conservatives are in is all too apparent.