Local elections in England (2018)

Given what has happened in the past few years, making sense of politics and election results might be a futile task in overanalysis. After all, the results of the local elections in 2017 pointed to a landslide victory for Theresa May in the general election merely a month later, yet it turned out very differently as the Conservatives lost their majority in the House of Commons.

What has been consistent since the 2016 referendum on the UK membership of the European Union is the decline and now possibly complete demise of UKIP as a party political force, due one suspects to implosion as much as the loss of their raison d’ĂȘtre. Those who had voted UKIP in the previous election cycles whether out of protest against the established parties or conviction regarding the UK’s membership of the EU have now abandoned the party, yet their presence looms large over both the Conservatives and Labour alike, thus also in determining the contours of Brexit.

The Conservatives seem to have been the main beneficiary from the collapse of UKIP this time around, counterbalancing their losses in London to Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and if the assumption were to be made that these former UKIP supporters generally look for a harder sort of Brexit in the coming year, then the Conservatives may feel obliged to do so, for the fear of losing their support. Naturally such must be offset against further losing the support of those who had voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum, though Labour’s position on Brexit if discernable is quite hard too.

In the 2017 general election, the Conservatives made an attempt to capture the UKIP vote in the traditional Labour heartlands but had voted to leave the EU, while fending off Labour in the swing constituencies and Conservative-leaning areas that had voted to remain in the EU. It was a very offensive strategy and had they pulled it off, the Government would have been returned with a huge majority. While the UKIP vote collapsed then, it did not all flow to the Conservatives, thus it was not possible for the Conservatives to surmount Labour in the areas where the Tories were on the attack, while the opposition to hard Brexit in the swing and Conservative-leaning areas led to the weakening of Tory support and parliamentary seats fell to Labour. The irony of the 2017 general election results is that by voting against the Conservatives, those who had voted to remain the in EU might have made Mrs May hostage to the Brexit wing of the party, making a harder Brexit likelier.

It would be interesting to see how the political parties, mainly the Conservatives and Labour, interpret the results of these local elections. Will the Government see it as a vindication for pursuing a hard Brexit? Or would the results in London make the Conservatives think twice about pushing ever harder Brexit? What would or should Labour do? Should it more clearly position itself to gain the support of those who had voted to remain in the EU, an offensive game that would risk losing support in the traditional Labour strongholds that had voted to leave, in a kind of mirror image to what happened to the Conservatives in 2017? Or wait until the Government falls? Could the Liberal Democrats become a stronger third UK-wide political force that provides home to those who had voted to remain the EU, and dislike the two main parties?

Given the enormity and gravity of the process of leaving the EU and the likely negative consequences, I suspect that party political arithmetic will be superseded by events that will lead to some sort of broad political realignment. I am not sure if the UK political parties as they are now will be in existence in a few years’ time: a bold speculation which I probably come to regret and will make me look silly.