Local government and mayoral elections in much of England has yielded a series of mixed outcomes for pro- and anti-Brexit parties in the United Kingdom. With results still coming it seems that the governing Conservative Party has taken a hammering from its electoral base, acrimonious disputes between “soft” and “hard” Brexit factions in Downing Street and Westminster causing it to shed support to other parties and independent candidates. A similar fate has befallen the Labour Party, albeit on a smaller scale than the Tories, though the main Opposition party is hoping that its position will improve as the final votes are totalled up. However if the polling trends continue it will put further pressure on the leadership of the two dominant groupings in UK politics to alter their positions on Brexit, possibly pushing more figures in the ranks of the Conservatives towards a “no-deal” withdrawal policy while forcing Labour to abandon its two years of prevarication and ambiguity on the question of Brexit and move towards a “no-exit” referendum option.
The real winners from yesterday’s elections are likely to be those parties explicitly for or against Britain’s membership of the European Union. The Green Party of England and Wales has clearly benefited in the former category and will probably record its best ever performance, attracting Remain voters from across the left-of-centre spectrum, particularly in normally Labour-backing areas. Meanwhile the centre-right Liberal Democrats have seen a marked electoral recovery from their previous low numbers, their pro-EU campaigning and demands for a second plebiscite on Brexit striking a note with like-minded, mainly Conservative voters. In contrast, on the anti-EU side, the hard-right leadership of the minority UKIP is claiming its own successes, garnering support from disgruntled Leave voters in several areas of England, especially from the Tories, though many observers are disputing this.
What is not under dispute is the election of councillors standing on behalf of the For Britain Movement, an avowedly far-right and ultra-nationalist cadre that has seen a number of social media bans in recent times due to its noxious politics. Politics that are shared by a significant number of the unexpectedly high level of independent or non-party councillors elected by English voters on Thursday, including former members or associates of UKIP, the British National Party, Britain First Party and other fringe groupings.
While some commentators in the UK press are presenting the elections as a demand from voters for Brexit to be implemented, that is not my impression. Rather the results from the votes in England present an electorate in confusion and disarray, with political partisanship and polarisation emerging in a way not seen in Britain since the Thatcherite 1980s or the austerity-wracked 1970s.