Reflecting back on last week’s local elections, on one level all is pretty much as it was before. The Labour party has gained less than 100 council seats, our party and the Liberal Democrats have gained seats too and only UKIP has done badly.
Looked at more deeply however, and there are some glimmers of hope. UKIP has more or less ceased to exist, party of course because it was a single-issue party and the Referendum has addressed that one issue but perhaps also because people are bored to death with hearing about Europe. The Lib Dems too did rather well (and are back up to 10% in the national polls). If they are benefitting both from a clear and sane position on Europe and also from being the traditional protest vote party, we may see a meaningful revival on their part in the coming months, winning support from moderate Conservative voters (as they did in Richmond).
While the lack of movement in the results is perhaps puzzling, given the failure of the government to achieve any Brexit triumphs, its lack of any other visible agenda and the catastrophe that is Corbyn, there was a clear mood on the doorstep that the local elections were about local issues or at least the concerns of the local electorate. For example, the Wandsworth and Westminster Tories stood proudly and correctly on their record of low council tax and decent services; Plymouth reacted against defence cuts; Barnet, against Corbyn’s lukewarm reaction to very reasonable concerns about anti-semitism.
Why did the role of national politics and the national leaders not have a bigger impact, as it so often does in local elections? The reasons are clear. First, Labour: it was hobbled by Jeremy Corbyn and his extremist agenda as witnessed over Salisbury and Syria and, because of its uncertain position on Brexit, Labour could not take advantage of the Government’s problems with the negotiations. For the Conservatives, Corbyn’s failure to mobilise young voters meant that strong Tory support amongst older, Leave-supporting, voters enabled it to hold on to the great majority of its seats. The party also benefited from the fact that the same seats had been contested four years ago, at the high watermark of UKIP support; following the referendum and Farage’s departure, UKIP has collapsed as a political force in this country. And finally, the Liberal Democrats were able to make some progress because they had an unequivocal position on Brexit as well as being traditionally strong on addressing local issues.
Will the local elections change anything in the EU negotiations or in Parliament? No. Things could have been different if Labour had done much better or if the new nascent political parties seeking to challenge the established political order had done better.
Ironically, though, the lack of clarity in the local election results may reinforce the prejudices of both party leaders on Europe, because Corbyn did better in the more Remain areas and the Conservatives in councils in leave-oriented areas. She might take succour from that and allow the Brextremists to have their way on the Customs Union, in a Cabinet they increasingly dominate.
There are two very big dangers for this Conservative government and indeed the party in the long-term if she does that.
Firstly, it is increasingly clear to moderate backbenchers – of whom there are many – that the Cabinet can no longer be relied upon to deliver a Brexit based upon common sense. Justine Greening’s breaking of ranks to demand a direct dialogue between the PM and moderate backbenchers may be the first sign that the ice is cracking. May is digging herself deeper and deeper into a hole on the Customs Union by backing a policy for which there is no parliamentary majority. Like the poll tax before it, rigid adherence to an unworkable policy could be the end of a female Tory PM.
Secondly, the reliance of our party on a particular generation of older voters is a warning of threats to come. Recent studies show today’s younger and middle-aged voters do not share their parents’ and grandparents’ views, meaning that the Conservative Party will lose support over time. A party that has turned its back on its traditional supporters in the business community, has little to offer younger voters and is insisting on pursuing a hard Brexit against all the evidence of the damage that would do to the United Kingdom is doomed to a slow, painful death.
Let’s be clear – an inability to beat a Labour party whose leader condemns defensive action by the West at any turn but always makes excuses for Putin and for Irish and Palestinian terrorism, who is still in love with failed Marxist economics, and wants to spend money we don’t have is a very real indictment of this current government.
What should we do? Those of us who wants to stop Brexit need to redouble our efforts. The Commons still has to consider the amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill the House of Lords has been quietly making over the last two weeks. Several of these are potential game changers, in terms of their impact on the Government’s negotiating position In Brussels.
On the 23rd of June, those of us who want to stop Brexit have an important date: the march through London making clear our belief that the people must be allowed to decide the outcome of the Government’s negotiation. The local election results may not have changed anything but we are still determined to do so.