By Pawel Swidlicki, Calum O’Byrne Mulligan, Emily Richards, Andrew McQuillan and Will Walden in London
The return of two-party politics in 2017 now looks to have been a temporary aberration. As of today, the long-established Conservative-Labour duopoly appears broken and voters have noticed. Overnight they punished Conservative and Labour councillors alike – delivering a damning verdict on 9 years of Tory Government, on Brexit (or a lack of it), and on Jeremy Corbyn’s equivocation over the burning political issue of the day.
Across England Liberal Democrats, Greens and Independent candidates were the beneficiaries of protest votes and stay at homes. Tory expectation management had been the other big winner until lunchtime. Results were looking better than the deliberate prediction of 1000 councillors losing their seats. However, as we approach Friday evening that 1000 seat loss has already happened and Tory losses could be as large as 1,300. As we write this they’ve lost 36 Councils and 1033 seats. This is indeed looking like a very bad result for Mrs May.
Labour – the party apparently only a heartbeat from Number 10 – has failed to fire in spectacular fashion. Remember Corbyn’s party is running against a government led by a Prime Minister whose cat would be unlikely to vote for her! Holed below the plimsol line, shipping water, immersed in major leaks (sorry!), and enjoying a sustained period of resignations, sacking and division, and still Labour have so far lost a net total of 4 councils and 112 seats last night.
One final thought. There were no polls in Scotland and Wales, and turnout in England was low – local elections only ever drive engaged voters to the polls. Likewise, the newly established Brexit Party and the pro-Remain Change UK party did not contest these elections, something which would have further fractured the political landscape. With European elections just three weeks away there will be much grinding of teeth in Tory and Labour circles tonight. This punishment could well prove mild compared to what lies ahead. Here’s what happened, why it really matters, and what happens next…
What has happened?
Votes have now been counted in the majority of the 259 local councils in England and Northern Ireland that held elections yesterday. The Tories suffered a very disappointing night, losing a net total of 36 councils and 1033 seats. However, Labour did not capitalise, as they also lost a net total 3 councils and 80 seats.
Instead, the main beneficiaries were the Liberal Democrats (+8 councils and 393 seats), the Greens (+81 seats) and a swathe of local groups and independent candidates (+1 council and 298 seats).
Turnout had been predicted to be very low due to deep dissatisfaction with both main parties. While there has been some anecdotal evidence of this in certain areas, overall turnout is on course to be only slightly lower than in previous local elections, with around one in three voters participating.
The Conservatives have performed very poorly in areas where the Liberal Democrats are the main opposition, with x councils changing hands between the two parties, including some emphatic victories in places like Bath and North East Somerset (LD +23, Tories -24) and in Chelmsford (LD +26, Tories -31).
Unsurprisingly, Tories lost seats to Lib Dems in Remain areas such as St Albans and Winchester, but they also won in Leave areas such as Devon and North Norfolk. On a slightly more positive note the Conservatives did manage to hold Swindon, a key Tory-Labour marginal at Westminster, and they took overall control of Walsall and North East Lincolnshire, two strongly Leave areas.
While Labour broadly performed well vis-à-vis the Conservatives, the party lost many seats in its traditional heartlands to independent candidates, particularly in areas that voted Leave and where Tories have not traditionally been competitive. As a result the party lost control of councils including Hartlepool, Bolsover and Ashfield.
With Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party not standing in these elections, UKIP was the most obvious pro-Brexit protest vehicle. A much-diminished force, UKIP only contested around 17% of seats, winning 18 (a net loss of 69). However, this masks a strong performance in certain areas, for example their 24% vote share in Sunderland and 23% share in Tamworth, with the party gaining seats from the other parties in these areas.
What does it mean?
Local election results are always determined by a mix of local and national factors, but these elections took place against the backdrop of Brexit – the failure of the Government to deliver it, and the widely held view that Labour contributed to that failure. As a result, both parties were punished, with Labour losing seats both to parties that are more pro-Brexit, and more explicitly in favour of a second referendum to stop Brexit entirely.
It is always difficult to extrapolate what exactly local election results mean for Westminster elections, but they often provide some important indicators. On that basis, it is hard to see how either party is in a strong position to win an overall majority at the next election, with both losing votes to smaller parties and to abstention.
While both parties suffered as a result of Brexit frustration, given the makeup of both parties’ electoral coalitions, it is the Conservatives who arguably have more to lose if progress has not been made towards resolving Brexit by the time of the next general election which given the ongoing impasse at Westminster, could come sooner rather than later.
Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s claims today that he wants to ‘bring together’ leave and remain voters, today’s results will serve only to heighten tensions within Labour over the leadership’s stance on Brexit, with figures on both sides of the divide already criticising the party’s position, with both sides able to point to specific results that support their claims.
This in turn means that while both parties will come under increased pressure to conclude their Brexit negotiations in the coming weeks and sign off on a deal that could pass through parliament, both also retain strong incentives not to agree a deal that could lead to a further bleeding of support to other parties.
The Liberal Democrats are the overall winners of the elections. The party has recovered many of its loses to the Conservatives from the Coalition era, including in Leave-voting areas, while also making gains in some traditional Tory areas it had not previously held. It has however struggled to recover as much ground in areas where Labour is its main opposition. Nonetheless, the party will go into the European elections arguing that it is best-placed to lead the charge for a People’s Vote and for Remain, rather than the new Change UK party or the Greens.
What happens next?
Westminster’s focus will now turn to the European Elections on 23 May. Labour and the Conservatives are set to return to cross-party talks to seek a Brexit compromise, but even if a breakthrough were to occur, it will be too late to prevent these elections from taking place. Mrs May will however hope the UK can be out before the new MEPs take their seats.
Polls suggest Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party will triumph overall, although the question will be whether the explicitly pro-Remain camp (Liberal Democrats, Greens and Change UK) can win a higher vote share overall.
The Conservatives appears to have effectively managed expectations – last night’s results appear less disastrous relative to what some had speculated. Nonetheless, there are sure to be renewed calls over the bank holiday for Mrs May to step aside from some party activists and MPs.
These calls will almost certainly intensify after the European Elections, where the Conservatives are expected to suffer punishing losses at the hands of the Brexit Party. Not long after those elections, in early June, the Chairs of local Conservative Associations are set to hold a non-binding vote of confidence in Mrs May as Tory leader. The vote will likely further undermine her authority.
Pressure will also grow on Jeremy Corbyn to end the Labour attempt to look both ways on Brexit, as those calling for Labour to adopt a more clearly pro and anti-Brexit position will see tonight’s results as vindication of their positions. While Labour may be unable to agree on which direction the Party should turn, what all appear to agree on is that the approach of constructive ambiguity seems to be running its course.
Having achieved the best Lib Dems election results since they entered Government in 2010, Vince Cable is soon to step aside as Lib Dem leader. The Lib Dems will elect a new leader over the coming months, with Cable able to leave office knowing that he hands the party over to his successor in a better state than it was in when he took over, with the party’s strong local infrastructure leaving it well placed to resist the challenge posed by Change UK.
If the Tories and Labour are unable to reach a joint position on Brexit either before or after the European elections, the clock will again start ticking down to the next cliff edge of 31 October. While this may seem a long way away, Parliament will in fact lose two months of Parliamentary time due to the summer recess and party conferences. Food for thought in Blue and Red HQs this evening.