What has happened to UK Party Politics?  

The recent council and mayoral elections held across the UK on the 4th May have made one thing very clear; party politics is in a complete muddle. Most parties suffered losses at the ballot box, no one more so than Labour which lost 320 seats across the country. Indeed, Professor John Curtice concluded that the local elections demonstrated a 7% swing from Labour to the Conservatives, who were the only triumphant party of the night, gaining a crushing 558 seats across the country.

Even in Scotland the ‘blue tide’, as some newspapers are now calling it, could not be defended, with the Scottish Conservatives gaining an unthinkable 164 seats, some of which are located in some of the most socio-economically deprived areas of the UK. Even the SNP lost ground, losing 7 seats across the country and overall control of Dundee; the 2nd city of SNP’s would be Independent Scotland.  Although not as dramatic as predicted, Labour also suffered a painful result in Wales, where it lost 108 seats and 3 councils.
What seems to be clear is that Brits across the country are abandoning their tribal party roots and instead voting on the big constitutional matter of the day: Brexit. Traditional Labour voters can be seen crossing the floor and marking their crosses in the Conservative box due to the Tory’s seemingly resolute determination to deliver the Brexit that the country voted for. Indeed, this is what Theresa May gambled on; that domestic issues such as an increasingly fragile NHS, in-work poverty and educational reform would be left entirely in the shadow of the large and looming Brexit negotiations. If the local elections are an indication of things to come on June 8th, it seems her gamble has paid off.

The resounding, if not desperately boring, words of ‘strong and stable leadership’ seem to be reverberating across the country and slithering into the psyche of the British voters. It appears, as demonstrated in their poor electoral performance on the 4th May, that people are fearful of the ‘coalition of chaos’ that could form after the general election. It would also appear that it is not only Leave voters who find the image of Jeremy Corbyn leading the negotiations at Brussels completely farcical, with many on the left of the political spectrum embracing the open arms of the Conservative party. In a poll carried out by YouGov, 34% of people said that the Conservatives would handle Brexit best compared to only 9% who said so of Labour. YouGov also revealed that whilst 48% of people felt Theresa May would be the best Prime Minister, only 18% backed the Labour leader for the role.

Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s poor polling, there is no indication that any of the other party leaders are believed capable of taking up the mantle of the official opposition. The Liberal Democrats are running a pro-European campaign with the promise of a second referendum on the deal between the UK and the EU. At best, it is thought that the Lib Dems could double their number of MPs in Westminster taking them up to a grand total of 18. I doubt Mrs May is trembling at the thought of this Lib Dem ‘revival’. However, momentum does appear to be gathering behind the Lib Dems with party membership figures reaching 101, 832 on the eve of the local elections: the highest ever recorded. Additionally, although the party lost seats at the council elections they did see their overall vote share rise.

What all these gains and losses seem to indicate, is that party politics is no longer determining the outcome of British elections. In recent years, constitutional matters have dictated the political scene. UKIP’s rise can be attributed to the frustration of those Brits who wanted to leave the EU, just as their catastrophic loss at the recent local elections can be attributed to this constitutional matter having been somewhat settled. The Conservatives have opportunistically placed themselves in a favourable position throughout the UK. In England and Wales, they are seen to be the party best placed to implement Brexit. In Scotland, they are the party not only committed to Brexit (which a third of Scots voted for) but also the party committed to holding together and strengthening the Union: another constitutional matter. Certainly Scotland’s political landscape has become completely engulfed by the prospect of a second independence referendum and all indications suggest that this will determine where voters mark their cross on June 8th.

Constitutional matters are at the very core of this general election, yet at some point constitutional issues must rest and a returned focus to domestic concerns will be needed. Will Brexit mark the end of party politics or will tribal loyalties return as soon as Britain decides, constitutionally speaking, who we are?

Article by Georgia McShane

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