The Brexit battle is still hotting up


We are living in interesting times.

The local elections brought an expected collapse in Conservative support and an unexpectedly poor Labour showing. The recovery of the Liberal Democrats and the performance of the Greens and independents were little short of stunning.

As in the last general election, political commentators underestimated the sophistication of the political electorate and the ability of voters to send strong messages using the voting system available to them. What messages were sent?

The consensus media view appears to be that the two big parties have been punished for a failure to deliver Brexit and the Northern leave seats in particular want Conservatives and Labour “to get on with it”.

The view has it that Labour and Conservatives are now doubly incentivised to do a deal. This is too simplistic and quite possibly wrong.

The pro-EU parties did very well indeed and that the fragmentation of UK politics continues apace. In some Northern leave seats there were significant swings from Labour to Liberal Democrat, as well as to Green and independent successes.

In the South West, the Liberal Democrats appear to have re-established their historic footing at the expense of the Conservatives. UKIP lost ground nationally. The Conservatives struggled in the affluent Home Counties.

A very credible explanation of a major theme of these election results is that Remain voters were highly motivated to inflict defeat on an incompetent Conservative Government and a vacillating Labour Party, just as many Remain voters supported Labour in the 2017 to mitigate the risk of a hard Conservative Brexit.

Set against this background, the political risk for both Labour and the Conservatives is very real and deepening and will not be improved by a compromise deal. Both parties remain deeply divided. The Conservatives blaming their leader and each other’s faction for the local election disaster, and Labour fighting tooth and nail over a strategy of two-horse straddling which has palpably failed.

The ERG and many other Conservatives will not countenance a compromise deal with what they see as a Marxist leader. Many in the Labour Party could not stomach a deal which would be seen as bailing out and facilitating a Tory Brexit. There will likely be more defections. Both parties will see rapidly widening cracks in their very foundations.

A compromise Brexit deal is fraught with risk for both major parties.

Voters will almost certainly have another opportunity to send further messages very soon. If the local elections were an opportunity for a Remain protest then the Brexit Party will be a potent vehicle for Leaver support and dissent.

Motivated Leavers won’t have to spoil ballot papers to register their discontent. Change UK will be available for the first time although the recent success of the remain parties could well galvanise co-operation. The Liberal Democrats and Greens are now much more difficult to categorise as ineffective or as wasted votes.

The clear message from these local elections is that the political battle over Brexit is still raging and that the UK two-party system is under huge pressure. More turmoil and shocks are inevitable and, as the Labour Party would have it – all options remain on the table.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.

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