The local elections in England last week were something of a nadir for the Conservative Party. When the final results were in, the party had lost control of 44 councils and lost 1,330 councillors from 2015, when these council seats were last up for election. This was the worst Conservative performance in local elections for nearly 25 years. However, the previous poor performance occurred during the rise of Tony Blair and ‘New Labour’, who greatly benefited from the failures of John Major’s government at the time.
In contrast to their mid-nineties high tide, in these elections Labour actually lost 84 councillors, although there were some bright spots for the party, such as winning control of the Trafford local authority. The beneficiaries of this Conservative rout were the Liberal Democrats, who gained control of 10 councils and 704 council seats, the Greens, who won an additional 194 councillors, and, surprisingly enough, various Independents, who wracked up gains of 661 new councillors.
The big picture which emerged from these elections is that the voters turned their backs on the two major parties, although the Conservative were much more badly affected than Labour.
These results raise an interesting question about the European Parliament elections, due to be held on 23 May. At first sight it appears that these could produce big gains for Remain parties, namely the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the newly-established Change UK. This impression is reinforced by UKIP’s loss of 145 council seats, and also by a recent poll of voting intentions in a possible second referendum on EU membership. The results showed that 51 per cent would vote to remain and 45 per cent to leave the EU.
However, there is contradictory evidence which points to a big win in the European elections for the new Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage. This can be seen in the figure below, which charts trends in voting intentions for the new party and its two main rivals during the month of April 2019. Labour vote intentions fell from 30 per cent at the end of March to 21 per cent at the end of April; in the same period Conservative vote intentions fell by nearly half from 24 per cent to 13 per cent.
In contrast, the Brexit Party’s support rose from a standing start of zero to 30 per cent over this period. This suggests that the Brexit Party is on course to win the European elections, just as UKIP won them in 2014.
The most recent survey in the figure above was conducted by YouGov on 29-30 April, and it contains some interesting information. It shows that 52 per cent of respondents who voted Conservative in the 2017 general election plan to vote for the Brexit Party in the European Elections. At the same time only 30 percent of them plan to vote Conservative, which shows how much the party has been damaged by the failure of the Brexit negotiations up to this point.
In contrast some 11 per cent of Labour voters in the last election opted for the Brexit Party, and surprisingly 13 per cent of Liberal Democrats did so (clearly not all Liberal Democrat supporters share the party’s views on membership of the European Union). With regard to Change UK, only six per cent of Conservatives, 10 per cent of Labour voters and 20 per cent of Liberal Democrats opted for the new centrist party.
There is also evidence of differential abstention in the survey. Some 31 per cent of Conservative voters in the last election said that they will not vote or they do not know what to do in the European elections. The equivalent figure for Labour is 33 per cent, and for the Liberal Democrats 20 per cent. Similarly, 28 per cent of Remain voters in the 2016 referendum say that they will not vote or don’t know, compared with 31 per cent of Leave voters. Both of these suggest that remain supporters are more likely to turn out than leave supporters on 23 May, though the differences are not large.
The most striking change in the survey, however, is the effect of the two new parties on EU referendum voters. Some 40 per cent of those reporting that they voted Leave said that they will opt for the Brexit Party in the European elections. In the case of Remain voters only 10 per cent of them planned to switch to Change UK. The Brexit Party clearly has an advantage in being seen as an outsider insurgent force determined to challenge the establishment. In contrast Change UK is regarded as an establishment party which is a product of the divisions in the two major parties.
In a post-referendum survey we did for our book on Brexit, we found that Conservative voters voted to leave the EU by a margin of 61 per cent to 38 per cent in 2016. At the same time Labour voters supported remain by a margin of 75 per cent to 25 per cent, and Liberal Democrats by 78 per cent to 21 per cent. That, of course, was nearly three years ago, and so it is interesting to compare support among these parties for the alternatives at the present time.
A YouGov poll conducted on 23-24 April showed that 23 per cent of Conservatives would opt for Remain in a second referendum and 64 per cent would opt to Leave, either with Theresa May’s deal or no deal at all. In contrast 66 per cent of Labour voters would choose to Remain and 21 per cent to Leave. Finally, 78 per cent of Liberal Democrats would vote to Remain compared with only 11 per cent supporting Leave.
So this suggests the Leave vote has grown among both the Conservatives and Labour, while weakening among Liberal Democrats. This is hardly surprising given the acrimony of the negotiations over the last three years. But it also suggests that the European elections will not solve the deep divisions in British politics over this issue.
By Paul Whiteley, Professor of Politics at the University of Essex.