Last week’s local elections proved that dissatisfaction with the two main parties is at a high, while smaller parties and independents prosper. While local issues were relevant, the shadow of Brexit loomed large over councils. With the Tories plummeting, it is decision time for Labour.
There’s a buzz I get going to vote, walking down to your local polling station with a cheery bounce to your step. I was so eager to vote I tripped over the step walking in. Never have I felt such intoxication from an election before. My local council results mirrored the national trend, and successfully booted the Conservatives out of overall control, taking the title of most Conservative councillors voted out by a single authority. My town council has been dominated by the Tories seemingly since man first discovered fire. The satisfaction for me was immense.
It’s safe to say the country isn’t very happy with the Conservatives right now. With a loss of 1,330 councillors and control of 44 councils, the Conservative domination of local democracy is looking shaky. Their seats tumbled one-by-one and took the Tory heartlands with it. This was a shires’ election, and the Tories lost control of places where they have previously controlled for years. An emotive loss came in Essex as the Conservatives lost their majority of Chelmsford City Council to the Liberal Democrats, after losing 31 councillors in total. A heartland for the Tories, Essex also saw three other councils fall as well as majorities slashed across the county. Uttlesford District Council was usurped by an independent residents’ association.
“With a loss of 1,330 councillors and control of 44 councils, the Conservative domination of local democracy is looking shaky. Their seats tumbled one-by-one and took the Tory heartlands with it.”
A similar story was told in the South West, with newly formed authorities in Bournemouth, Devon, and Somerset all giving grim readings to Conservative councillors on Friday morning. Overnight, the results that were frantically counted allowed the Tories to wake up and witness their English presence dramatically fall in front of their eyes. On Friday, as Theresa May’s local representatives fell to other parties, her speech at the Welsh Conservative conference fell on deaf ears.
Amazingly and without any sense of awareness, Theresa May interpreted her party’s losses as a demand for more progress on Brexit. The same can be said for Jeremy Corbyn, who appeared before the cameras on Friday morning seemingly blind to the fact that his party had lost councils and councillors. Overall, Labour lost 84 councillors and control of six councils. Unlike the Conservatives, Labour’s scalps were taken mostly across the North of England, losing councils in Bolsover, Burnley, and Wirral. It’s more grim reading for Corbyn’s Labour, to lose control of highly poignant areas in the North whilst retaining some successes in metropolitan elections in centres such as Manchester and Coventry. For an Opposition leader in his fourth year of championing his party’s grassroots power, losing seats and councils is a disastrous result. Alas from Corbyn, a similar response to May’s intransigence.
“Amazingly and without any sense of awareness, Theresa May interpreted her party’s losses as a demand for more progress on Brexit. The same can be said for Jeremy Corbyn, who appeared before the cameras on Friday morning seemingly blind to the fact that his party had lost councils and councillors.”
But for the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party, the local elections were a goldmine. Following a disastrous fall from grace in 2015, the Lib Dems have soared back into prominence gaining 704 councillors and overall control of 10 councils. Their performance was attributed not just to the undiluted failures of the main two parties, but also to the Lib Dems’ rather unique strategy of actually being good at local democracy. In my area, for example, leaflets were distributed focusing on local issues and reasonable requests which residents were concerned over. Infrastructure, natural beauty, and housing all sitting comfortably alongside their mandate for stopping Brexit. It’s a model of satire to note that arch-Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg is now represented in his own ward by a Lib Dem councillor.
“It’s a model of satire to note that arch-Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg is now represented in his own ward by a Lib Dem councillor.”
Similar success came from the Greens, who had an astonishing night of politics. On Thursday morning, the Greens had 71 councillors across England. By Friday night, they had increased this to 265, a percentage increase of 273%. Their success came through localism and a message of change, but undoubtedly through their moral authority on climate change and environmental issues. Independent and local parties also hugely dented the main party coffers, gaining a remarkable 661 councillors and tipping the balance in many councils.
So, where does this leave us? The sensitive honour of both the Conservatives and Labour is now wounded, weeping behind its lost numbers. For the Tories, these numbers are bad but not unexpected. Theresa May calls the results ‘disappointing’, but her expectations can’t have been high following her government’s impending collapse. The Tories also have a propensity to come back to life in certain situations, a zombie party leading a zombie government. This loss is not a short snip off the stem of Conservative government, it’s certainly damaging – but after this many years of Tory failures, it’s water off a duck’s back.
“The Tories have a propensity to come back to life in certain situations, a zombie party leading a zombie government.”
But for Labour, their position as the leading opposition party, both in political and moral terms, is under serious jeopardy. Brexit is still the dominant issue as Jess Phillips stated on Friday morning. Voters are clearly angry with how Brexit is being carried out, and in either direction, opinions are hardening. Success for the Lib Dems and Greens can be partly ascribed to their strong message on Brexit. The Tories’ position of Brexit is resolute, save a few brave souls in favour of a second referendum. But after a weak election, Labour now needs to make a choice.
Accomplishing Brexit was never going to be easy, but Labour’s flip-flop fence sitting is only making parliamentary democracy much more difficult. At the EU Parliament elections in a few weeks, voters will once again be asked to choose. The Tories are likely to get their vote share battered more than a piece of haddock. Labour risks having the same oily treatment. As bystanders, we are constantly teased signs that a change is coming from Labour. John McDonnell said as much on Andrew Marr’s Sunday programme. But in order to win votes and restore their image as an actual opposition, Labour needs to decide.
“Accomplishing Brexit was never going to be easy, but Labour’s flip-flop fence sitting is only making parliamentary democracy much more difficult.”
The choice is thus: Labour fully supports Brexit and agrees a compromise with Theresa May. It would be a vote killer akin to the Lib Dems with tuition fees, or indeed Tony Blair’s Labour with the Iraq War. Voters who have stuck around waiting for Labour to finally say they’re not supporting Brexit anymore, would leave their loyalty at the door.
“Labour fully supports Brexit and agrees a compromise with Theresa May. It would be a vote killer akin to the Lib Dems with tuition fees, or indeed Tony Blair’s Labour with the Iraq War.”
Or they could say enough is enough. Brexit means Brexit, but Brexit means bedlam. It’s good to note that the parliamentary party has already voted in favour of a second referendum. At least 100 Labour backbenchers are also attuned to the cause, with this number being underestimated according to People’s Vote MPs. Courage and leadership, not constant fudge.
“Or they could say enough is enough. Brexit means Brexit, but Brexit means bedlam. It’s good to note that the parliamentary party has already voted in favour of a second referendum.”
The local elections were a test of opinion that neither party needed. Their own internal conflicts are causing democracy to implode, and their crises of leadership threaten to push the UK into the sea. It’s no wonder so many chose to vote independent. Why would you give your vote to parties with such stubborn directions?
Between now and the EU elections, all eyes are yet again on Labour, to see if they can finally commit to bringing down the house. Otherwise, it’s up Brexit creek without a paddle.🔷
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(This is an original piece, first published by the author in PoliticsMeansPolitics.com. | The author writes in a personal capacity.)