Brexit Backlash Hits Main Parties in U.K. Local Elections

(Bloomberg) --

Early results in England’s local elections suggested voters were turning their backs on both the main parties amid frustration over Brexit.

With 111 of 248 English councils having declared their results by 8:20 a.m. Friday, Labour had lost 79 seats overall, and the Conservatives had lost 441. The winners were smaller parties, principally the pro-European Liberal Democrats, who had gained 303 seats.

“Voters don’t vote for divided parties,” John Curtice, professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, told the BBC. “One of the remarkable things about Brexit and about our current politics is that both our major parties are divided.”

Prime Minister Theresa May’s ruling Conservatives are paying the heaviest price at the polls for overseeing the political chaos of the U.K.’s divorce from the European Union. Britain was due to leave the bloc on March 29 but May has been forced to delay the departure until as late as October 31, after failing three times to get her Brexit deal approved in Parliament.

Tory Splits

Deep disagreements over the policy and a stream of ministerial resignations have undermined May’s efforts to conclude the country’s withdrawal from the 28-nation bloc.

But Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist opposition Labour Party has also struggled to cope with internal divisions over Brexit. Labour members of Parliament represent both strongly pro-Brexit and pro-EU constituencies and Corbyn is attempting to bridge that gap.

Brexit Backlash Hits Main Parties in U.K. Local Elections

More than 8,400 council seats are up for grabs in mainly rural parts of England with no elections taking place in London. Not all local votes are held at the same time, and this year’s batch are predominantly Conservative-held.

“Nine years into government you would expect us to be losing lots and lots of seats,” James Cleverly, a junior Brexit minister told the BBC. “It would be unrealistic for me to pretend that nine years in government, and Brexit as a backdrop, that this is going to be anything but a really really tough night for us.”

Labour Flops

The usual pattern in local elections is for the party in national government to lose seats, and electoral analysts expected the Conservatives to be 400 to 800 council representatives down by the time counting finished. If Labour is unable to pick up hundreds of these, it will suggest that leader Corbyn’s attempt to straddle both sides of the Brexit fence is putting voters off.

Uncertainty over the future direction of Brexit has dominated the national political debate for months. May has tried to position the Conservatives as an explicitly pro-Brexit party, but found herself under fire from some of her own MPs, as well as some rival parties, as seeking an insufficiently strong departure from the European Union.

Brexit Backlash Hits Main Parties in U.K. Local Elections

Labour meanwhile has sought to appeal to voters on both sides, promising to take Britain out of the EU while also hinting it could support a referendum on Brexit. “Labour’s message is trying to appeal to both sides, and in that sense it’s complex,” the party’s trade spokesman, Barry Gardiner told the BBC.

He said many in Labour continued to oppose Brexit, “and their voice has also been heard. And if a party is seen to be speaking with two voices, it’s very difficult to communicate the policy.”

The Green Party gained 42 seats and a range of independent candidates won 215 seats from other parties. Neither Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, nor the pro-EU Change UK group are contesting the local elections, with both focusing on the European Parliament votes due to be held on May 23.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.