Two new political parties have been formed in recent weeks. One, the Brexit Party, is effectively a breakaway from Ukip, the other, Change UK, has been formed by defectors from both Labour and the Conservatives. So one might assume that the local elections, taking place on Thursday in most of England outside London, will be a vital first test of these parties’ potential to break the mould of the existing party system.
Not so. For both are so new that they did not have the time and opportunity to nominate candidates for this year’s annual round of local elections. Thursday will be what might come to seem the last hurrah of the existing party system, with the Liberal Democrats unchallenged by the Change UK upstart that threatens their already rather tenuous grip on socially liberal pro-EU Britain, while Ukip will be the only (and rather limited) option available to those who are unhappy at the failure to date to extricate the UK from the EU.
The absence of the Brexit Party in particular could have a significant impact on the outcome. Since its formal launch just a couple of weeks ago the party has not only come to acquire most of the Eurosceptic vote that up to that point it was sharing with Ukip, but has also won new converts, as Leave voters who think the UK should have left the EU without a deal on 29 March defect from the Tories in droves.
Across April as a whole, polls of vote intention for Westminster have put the combined support for the two Eurosceptic parties at 15 per cent, though in polls conducted since Easter the figure has been not far short of 20 per cent. Three-quarters of that tally is claimed by the Brexit Party.
That leaves a crucial question—what will those disenchanted Tory Leave voters do on Thursday? The most obvious answer would seem to be to vote Ukip instead, even though its leader, Gerard Batten, lacks Nigel Farage’s charisma and espouses what many regard as objectionable views about Muslims. However, although Ukip is fighting the local elections, it is only doing so on a limited basis. The party is contesting just one in six of the 8,300 seats up for grabs, far fewer than when most of them were last fought over in 2015, on the same day as a general election in which Ukip won 13 per cent of the vote.
In short, many a Leave voter who is anticipating that Thursday will give them an opportunity to express their disappointment at Theresa May’s failure to deliver Brexit may well find that they have no opportunity to do so. They will have either to screw up their ballot paper and put it in the bin—or vote with gritted teeth for the Conservatives on the grounds that at least their hearts are in the right place on Brexit even if they have proven unable to deliver. The more they make the latter choice, the greater the Conservatives’ chance of avoiding some of the more calamitous outcomes that have been projected for them.
That said, the party is defending a relatively high baseline. Election day in 2015 was, of course, the day that, against expectations, David Cameron won a narrow majority. That success was largely matched in the local ballot boxes too, where the party’s performance was the equivalent of a nationwide six-point lead over Labour. In contrast, this month’s polls of Westminster vote intentions have credited the party with as little as 28 per cent, five points behind Labour.
Meanwhile, the seats being contested this year are very disproportionately located in what are usually regarded as the Tory shires where the party thus potentially has a lot to lose. The prospect is hardly one that Conservative Central Office can regard with equanimity, even if some of the more dire forecasts of what might happen on Thursday are not realised.
On the other side of the Brexit divide, Change UK has neither achieved the dramatic impact of the Brexit Party nor, indeed, shown that it has the potential to “break the mould” that the SDP appeared to have in its early days. On average, polls of Westminster vote intentions credit it with just six per cent of the vote.
Its absence from the local election stage will thus be nothing as important as that of the Brexit Party. Even so, the Liberal Democrats in particular have good reason to be grateful that they will not be faced with competition from a party which, like them, is fishing for support almost entirely the waters of Remain voters, and which is threatening to peel away as many as one in seven of those who voted Liberal Democrat in 2017.
The Liberal Democrats are, of course, past masters of pavement politics, albeit that the party’s rather diminished state these days is reflected in the fact that it is only contesting just over half the seats on Thursday. In each year’s local elections the party regularly outperforms whatever is its current standing in the polls.
But 2015 was the year that the coalition chickens finally came home to roost, and the party’s local election performance was typically only three points better than the eight per cent to which the party collapsed in the general election. That represented its worst local election performance ever.
Consequently, although the party’s current national poll standing is still no better than eight per cent, the absence of Change UK should help ensure that it at least makes some gains. However, to demonstrate that the party really is making progress it will need to show that its vote is up on the (still relatively modest) 16 per cent that it managed last year.
The party to whom the absence of the new parties should make least difference on Thursday is Labour. Given that only around 30 per cent of its 2017 supporters voted Leave, it is much less vulnerable than the Conservatives to the challenge from Farage. So far, only five per cent or so of those who voted Labour in 2017 say they will now vote for the Brexit Party or Ukip. Perhaps less obviously, Labour has also so far proven relatively immune to the challenge from Change UK, despite that party’s Labour origins and its stronger commitment to a second EU referendum. Only around six per cent of Labour’s vote has as yet headed in that direction.
But that of course suggests that, whatever might be the case so far as the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are concerned, Labour’s performance on Thursday could still be a good guide to its standing—and thus worth subjecting to close scrutiny. Given that it is defending a poor performance in 2015, in themselves headlines of Labour gains will tell us little. What matters will be the scale of the party’s progress.
It is seven years since it last put in a respectable local election performance—that is, both being well ahead of the Tories and scoring at a level that points to more than 35 per cent of the vote in a general election. If it cannot end that dismal record on Thursday, then perhaps the party should be careful about what it wishes for when it argues that the best way out of the Brexit impasse would be another general election.
By Sir John Curtice, Senior Fellow at The UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally appeared in Prospect.