Local elections rarely give us much insight into future results in general or European elections. One reason is because local elections tend to be about local issues. National politics or foreign affairs are rarely a factor in deciding who is best to decide delivering local services from a nearby council.
A second reason is that local elections are not held in all areas at the same time. Only areas of England and Northern Ireland took part in the vote making it normally difficult to guess how these results speak to how London and the rest of the United Kingdom would have voted. But these results are different.
This is not because of turnout. About a third of voters came out to cast their ballots where local elections were held. This is broadly consistent with past local election results. It shows voters are no more switched on or off in these contests.
What makes these results different are the results themselves. In the last general and local elections, we saw voters deserting the third parties. Brexit did not play a defining role in either. In fact, Labour’s focus on local issues like education, housing and transport saw it perform much better than many had predicted. Labour and the Conservatives were in a two-horse race.
The local election results show what has been described as a “Brexit backlash”. The biggest losers on the night were the two parties, the Conservatives and Ukip, who are most clearly for Brexit. While Labour won a few councils, it lost about ten percent of its contested seats overall. The biggest winners were Liberal Democrats, Greens and Independents whose total wins outnumber Labour’s.
The obvious observation is voters returned to supporting third parties again. After disastrous results in 2015, the Liberal Democrats have won back local seats they have held before. But this simply describes what happened: it does not explain why some third parties and not others.
Some claim that voters sent a message of frustration about Brexit. This is probably correct, but we should not conclude this problem is only solved in making Brexit happen by finding whatever compromise is possible to get it over.
If voters wanted to reward parties committed to making Brexit happen, then they would not have nearly wiped out Ukip at the polls. If support for a People’s Vote is such an anti-democratic proposal that voters would flock elsewhere, then we would not see losses to the Liberal Democrats, Greens and a record number of independents who support a second referendum. In short, anyone who thinks starting Brexit will bring voters back will fail to understand that Brexit has never been about making Brexit happen.
The public are fed up with politics as usual, Parliament’s gridlock and politicians making promises that don’t come true. On the surface, making Brexit happen as promised in 2016 can look like the only solution. The problem is this gets the diagnosis all wrong. A Tory-Labour Brexit pact would likely cause both far more harm than good.
Voters who supported Brexit then or now share something in common with many pro-Remain voters: they want Westminster to pay greater attention to concerns on the doorstep and reconnect with the issues that matter most to them. Brexit was a way of giving the establishment a wake up call. If this was really about making Brexit happen, Liberal Democrats and Greens would be wiped out and swept away. But that did not happen either north or south.
The local election results indicate that bringing the country back together is achievable. It will require offering policies bringing tangible benefits, not playing it overly safe and support for a confirmatory People’s Vote. Those parties learning these lessons stand to weather the European elections best and will have the winning results when a general election is called. Banging on about a Brexit plan no one wants to the exclusion of everything else is a fast track to political extinction, as some parties may find out, unless a swift change in direction is made.
Thom Brooks is Dean of Durham Law School and author of Becoming British