Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Britain's electoral upheaval might be just beginning

For the United Kingdom, May has been a month of not one but two elections – one in England and Northern Ireland for local councils, and two across the whole UK for the European Parliament. We’ve been leaping for joy here, of course, as the data has flooded in and each numerical lightning strike has lit up the landscape a little more plainly. But the tsunami of results may have left the (shall we say) less obsessive a bit… overfaced. As we come up for air after this month of numbers, what do the local and European elections tell us about the state of the parties? Enough of council by-elections, opinion polls and party rumour: here’s some real ballot boxes to break open. Do try to restrain yourselves. 

The Conservative Party is on a precipice. First and foremost, what these results tell us is that the governing Conservatives’ prospects are hanging by a thread. They are under attack from two sides. First, in the local elections, they got absolutely shredded in England – particularly Southern England – wherever there were wealthier ex-Tory Remainers. And then, in the Euro-elections, they got battered by absolutely everybody, including frustrated Brexiteers who defected en masse to Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party. To be fair, the Conservatives’ share of the vote in early May (at perhaps something between 28 and 31 per cent) was not too bad by historical standards. Many governments have done much worse than that. Labour fell below that national share of the vote in all the local elections held its entire third term in office, gaining only between 22 per cent and 26 per cent in local elections between 2006 and 2009 (opens as PDF). And the Tories at least managed to match Labour’s similarly poor performance (more of which later). So they weren’t exactly wiped off the map.

But the results were particularly bad for them geographically, helping to explain why they lost quite so many councillors (over 1,300) when if you’d asked us on polling day, we’d have said they would maybe lose 800 or a few more. Let’s take you to deep England, to the Vale of White Horse in South Oxfordshire, where the Tories got sand kicked in their faces by the resurgent Liberal Democrats; to East Cambridgeshire, where they also went backwards; to Mid Suffolk, where they lost overall control; to Chelmsford (where the Liberal Democrats got pretty close in 2010, before tumbling backwards at the end of the Coalition years), which saw the Tories wiped out in the city itself; and so on. Wherever there were commuters, graduates, people moving out of London, relatively high income strivers, the Tories got whacked. In a First Past the Post system that loses you a lot of councillors, just as it loses you lots of MPs once one particular slice of people turn on you. It’s for just this reason that the Tories should start to worry just a little about even apparently safe seats like Ed Vaizey’s Wantage (in Vale of White Horse) and even wealthy Guildford in Surrey.

Dazed by their misfortune in the face of their gold enemy in the shape of the Remainery Liberal Democrats, the Tories then got slammed in the back by the massed turquoise forces of Leavedom, in the shape of the Brexit Party. They managed to come fifth in the elections to the European Parliament, and to garner only nine per cent of the vote. The conventional thing to say here is that this is ‘the Conservative Party’s worst result since 1832’, but actually it’s much worse than that: this is their worst result by far since the dawn of universal suffrage and the emergence of the modern party system. They got beaten everywhere, and they failed to win a single council area, but their grip on Remain Britain (which the locals showed was at best tenuous) was completely broken. Their vote share was particularly pathetic in areas that voted more than 60% Remain. Take a look at London, which they ran under Boris Johnson’s Mayoralty until 2016 (and where Zac Goldsmith managed to get 35 per cent of the first round of voting even then). Last Thursday, they managed… 7.9 per cent. The Tories are in crisis in Brexitland, but they are struggling for bare survival in Remainia.

Labour are in deep trouble too. What, then, of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition? The last time the Conservatives posted local election results like these, Tony Blair was carrying all before him and Labour were getting vote shares in the 40s. Well, not so much this time. Via some unpleasant alchemy the chemistry of which is in part opaque, voters’ distaste for the Government seems to be rubbing off on the alternative government too. The Tories may have performed catastrophically, but Labour has performed appallingly. There is a mood of ‘plague on both your houses’ running in the country, and an angry undertow of frustration about politics-as-usual. Labour has been trying to ride that tiger, with Trumpian rhetoric and quicksilver misdirection: this time, they ended up inside the animal they sought to tame.

Labour’s local election performance was in many ways the mirror image of the Conservatives’, and indeed they attracted the same pretty low share of the vote. In what you once might have called their ‘heartlands’, particularly the North East of England, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour offer went down not so much like a lead balloon but an entire Zeppelin made of concrete. They lost and they lost and they lost, which since early results were clustered there shaped the early narrative on a night where they did not quite so badly in more urban, liberal, Remainery parts of the country (they held off a strong attempted Liberal Democrat challenge in Cambridge, for instance). Hartlepool, Darlington, Stockton-on-Tees, Redcar and Cleveland: Labour lost control of all of them. Since they too are plunging in the opinion polls, and their leader is probably the least popular Opposition chief ever, that ought perhaps to be not so surprising: but it’s still a little bit of a shock when we’re used to one of the Big Two being up when the other is down. There are historical precedents, as when both Ted Heath as Conservative Prime Minister and Harold Wilson as Labour leader were deeply unpopular in 1972-74, and when Margaret Thatcher and Michael Foot were also phenomenally disliked in 1981; but it still seems strange to see both red and blue teams in the toilet at the same time.

If Labour’s fortresses seemed to crumble at the beginning of May, their remaining citadels got positively dynamited in the European elections at the end of the month. Very crudely, their traditional and perhaps more conservative voters turned their backs on the party in the local elections: then their new, younger, city-dwelling and cosmopolitan backers kicked them when they were down. Labour has been tip-toeing along a very fine line in recent years, trying to attract new supporters as they shed them in seats they’ve held for decades. For every Stoke-on-Trent South there must be a Canterbury, for every Mansfield a Kensington, and so on. This time, they fell off that tightrope. They got buried in North London, losing Islington, Camden and Haringey to the Liberal Democrats. They got annihilated in Bristol, where they managed to come fourth in a city where they hold all four Parliamentary seats. They somehow managed to come third in the City of Oxford, where there was a 23 per cent swing to the Liberal Democrats. That’s right: 23 per cent. Yes, it was a fairly low turnout compared to a General Election, and yes, perhaps lots of those voters were committed Euro-partisans on one side or the other. But Labour, like the Tories, did worse than it has ever, ever done before – without even including their risible fifth in Scotland, where Scottish Labour increasingly looks like an irrelevance.

The Liberal Democrats are back in the big time. The big winners on both nights? Step forward, the orange team led by Vince Cable (above), who are now firmly installed back in the mainstream of British politics. It’s an extraordinary turnaround. Just a few months ago, perhaps only a few weeks back, we were still scratching our heads, saying ‘why aren’t the Liberal Democrats doing better?’ Turns out they just needed the right circumstances, the right campaign theme, and the right electoral battleground. They’ve never done as well in terms of gaining councillors as they did in the local elections (though their actual projected share of the vote was a relatively modest 17 to 18 per cent). And they’ve never done as well as they did in the European elections, where they managed to attract 20 per cent of the vote. It’s also important to note that their opinion poll ratings are also beginning to shoot up now, into at least the mid-teens. In part, but only in part, this is explicable as the Revenge of the Remainers: high-income, highly-educated voters who are unused to not getting their own way, and are pretty angry about it, choosing to use the Lib Dems as their vehicle of discontent.

But there does seem to be more to the centre party’s success than that. There are Remainers everywhere, of course (something lost in the deeply stupid discourse of ‘Leave seats’ and ‘Remain seats’). But the Liberal Democrats’ success in England’s North East and North West in early May, as well as their frankly stunning march forward into deep blue areas in Southern England, shows that they’re doing something right in general rather than just in detail. It's true that most voters don't turn up at these contests: but the Liberal Democrats were able to attract 'their' voters to the polls even as others struggled to do so, which must be worth something. Take a look for instance at Hertfordshire, an area of commuter-heavy Metroland where the party has been strong in the past. There the Lib Dems managed to pick up 36 councillors across six councils, catapulting themselves for instance into first place in St Albans – a Westminster seat they have hopes of winning, and indeed should win if they are to make the kind of advances that the last month suggest (it’s the party’s eleventh target overall, and their seventh potential gain now held by the Conservatives). Above all, it seemed to us that the party looked professional, deploying good-looking branding, insurgent phrases, eye-catching podiums, excited-looking candidates. Perhaps that’s a little thing, and the actual shape of the playing field was the main element here. But it can’t have hurt.

In the European elections, the Liberal Democrats managed to push Labour back into third, and by quite some way (outstripping them by more than seven percentage points). They won London. They picked up 15 Members of the European Parliament to add to their solitary one last time. Their storming performance justified the confidence of pollsters who pushed them right up, mainly on the basis of their sampling techniques rather than turnout assumptions – which may be an optimistic sign for the yellow team as we move forward towards the General Election. They seem to have been comprehensively de-toxified, not via a slow, drip-by-drip purging, but in a single dose of principle. Other parties should take note: if you say what you mean and mean what you say, people listen. It’s not just in St Albans where the Lib Dems have target Parliamentary seats in which they did well. They succeeded in both the council and European elections in North Devon, overlapping with their seventh target seat. And Remainer-heavy Richmond Park and Cheltenham should be fairly easy gains for them in the next General Election, since they got more than half the vote in the former (opens as PDF) and easily topped the poll in the latter - pushing the Conservatives back into fourth. Basically, the Lib Dems are back. In terms of Westminster seats, they face an intimidating blue wall of huge Conservative majorities, but they must surely be hoping for at least a modest haul of new MPs next time.

The fixed points of reference have all gone. There’s so much more to say. Change UK did not manage to get off the ground, and they face an uncertain future in which they will probably seek to strike an electoral deal with the Liberal Democrats – which is probably what they should have done all along. The Scottish National Party and the Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru had fantastic nights, Plaid in particular exultant because they beat Labour in Wales for the first time ever. What about the Greens, who rode a wave of environmental concern across Europe to post really strong results in both the locals and the European elections? What about the huge numbers of Independents and Ratepayers elected in the local elections? What’s happening in Northern Ireland, where two out of three MEPs are now from parties in favour of both Remain and of the backstop that Tories hate so much? Analysis of these trends will have to wait until next month.

That brings us to our last point: the Big Two might be in crisis, but the new and not-so-improved Big Four when we include Brexit and the Lib Dems are also surrounded by insurgent forces – Nationalist, Green, Localist. The system is in unprecedented flux, and in a First Past the Post system (containing a large number of super-marginals) that means that a huge range of General Election outcomes are in play. Just a medium-sized leakage of left-wing voters out of Labour could cripple the party. Alternatively, just a 10-15 per cent vote share for the Brexit Party could put Mr Corbyn in Downing Street with something approaching a majority.

The public no longer want to be labelled Red or Blue – who can blame them? – but given Britain’s lop-sided electoral system it’s still very likely they’ll have to accept a Red or Blue government. Combined with the laughable and undeliverable pledges both teams now seem to issue on a daily basis, voters' sense of frustration and alienation as people are expected to live on as Little Labourites and Toryites is only going to grow – eventually, perhaps, blowing the lid off the system entirely. It’s not just the steps in front of us that are shrouded in fog, but the road ahead and the horizon too.