There was a ready acceptance among politicians and commentators as the local election results gradually emerged last week that the outcome reflected voters’ views about Brexit. Not that they necessarily agreed what message the electorate were sending. Those of a Leave disposition interpreted the decline in both Conservative and Labour support as evidence that voters wanted the House of Commons to get on with delivering Brexit.
Those of a Remain persuasion noted the increase in Liberal Democrat and Green support and suggested that the outcome represented an endorsement of the call that voters should decide the fate of Brexit in a second referendum. Of course, fitting the facts to match prior preconceptions has long become a familiar feature of the Brexit debate.
The most straightforward way of trying to discern what impact the Brexit impasse had on the outcome of the local elections is to examine whether the change in a party’s share of the vote since last year’s local elections varied systematically between Leave- and Remain-voting areas. The table below shows the average change in the level of support for the three main parties in England since 2018, broken down by the level of support for Leave in 2016 in the council area in which wards are located.
First, this reveals that the Conservatives performed worst in places with a strong Leave vote, while their vote tended to fall less in more pro-Remain areas – though the pattern is not an entirely straightforward one. Here is some sign, consistent with the evidence of the polls, that during the last twelve months the Conservatives have particularly lost ground among more Leave-inclined England.
Source: Ward level results collected by the BBC in 40 local authorities that had elections in both 2015 and 2018. Table confined to those wards fought by all three parties both times.
However, Labour’s vote also fell most heavily in those places that voted most heavily Leave. So, rather than simply expressing frustration with the Conservatives’ failure to deliver Brexit, voters in Leave-inclined England seem to have withdrawn support from both main parties. This seems to support the claim made by some politicians that both parties were being punished for the Brexit impasse, albeit, perhaps, more especially by those of a pro-Leave disposition rather than by voters in general.
That said, the Conservatives and Labour lost ground heavily in both pro-Remain and pro-Leave England. How far this wider trend is a consequence of voters’ reaction to how they have handled Brexit is difficult to tell. What, however, we do know is that both parties have seen their average standing in the opinion polls fall since the Mrs May’s Brexit deal was unveiled in mid-November, the Conservatives by no less than 11 points and Labour by six.
We can therefore say that the results of the local elections are consistent with (and help to confirm) other evidence that both parties have struggled to maintain their support during the course of the Brexit impasse – albeit with the additional twist that perhaps Labour have in fact fallen back just as much as the Conservatives.
But what of the rise in support for the Liberal Democrats? Was the party’s anti-Brexit stance reflected in a tendency to advance most strongly in Remain-voting areas? To a degree – but only to a degree. As for the Conservatives and Labour, what stands out most of all is a relatively poor performance in the most strongly pro-Leave parts of England.
Otherwise, however, it is difficult to argue that the results suggest that the Liberal Democrats’ advocacy of a second referendum has brought the party a particular boost in Remain-inclined England in recent months – much, indeed, as the opinion polls have been suggesting.
Much the same has to be said of the equally anti-Brexit Greens, who registered their best local election performance for a decade. Across all the wards where the party stood this time it won an average of 12%, while its vote increased by five points in those wards it fought both this year and last. But that increase was just as high in the most pro-Leave areas as it was in the most pro-Remain ones. Most likely the party’s success had more to do with the recent debate about climate change than the party’s stance against Brexit.
So, at this point, we have a bit of a puzzle. If the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats were all performing less well in the most pro-Leave parts of England as compared with last year (and the Greens no better), then who was performing better?
Part the answer, at least, is UKIP. It only fought this year’s local elections on a limited scale, contesting just one in six of the seats. But where it did stand – which was disproportionately in places that voted heavily to leave (and seemingly more so than last year) – the party’s vote was up markedly on the nadir to which it had fallen a year ago.
In those wards that it fought both this year and last, the party’s vote was up by as much as eight points, a figure that rose to 13 points in the most strongly pro-Leave areas. This was enough to push the party’s average share of the vote across all the wards in which it stood this year up to 15%.
Although this performance was still not as strong as in the local elections held in 2015 and 2016, it represents clear evidence that the Brexit impasse has instigated a marked revival in support for a eurosceptic party, even though that party is according to the polls now overshadowed by a newcomer, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. That gives every reason to anticipate that the challenge from that quarter will be greater in the Euro-elections when the new eurosceptic party will be on the ballot.
Between them, UKIP’s advance (missing though it was from the media headlines) and the especially poor performance compared with last year by the Conservatives and Labour in the most pro-Leave parts of England, represent the strongest evidence provided by the local elections that the Brexit impasse has had an impact on party support.
It suggests that some more Leave-inclined voters at least did take the opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with how Brexit has been handled, and that this cost both main parties support. In contrast, caution certainly needs to be exercised in assuming that the rise in Liberal Democrat and Green support represents a markedly greater willingness by Remain voters in particular to switch to a pro-second referendum party.
More difficult to discern, however, are the implications of perhaps the most dramatic feature of the elections, that is, the sharp drop in both Conservative and Labour support irrespective of how an area voted in the referendum. It might represent a cri de coeur from voters about the state of the Brexit process – but whether these voters agree about what they want done about it might be another thing.
By Sir John Curtice, Senior Fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe. A longer version of this blog is available at What UK Thinks: EU.