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Home > Publications > PISM Spotlights > PISM Spotlight: Brexit Negotiations after the 2018 Local Elections in England: The Confirmation of Uncertainty

PISM Spotlight: Brexit Negotiations after the 2018 Local Elections in England: The Confirmation of Uncertainty

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07 May 2018
Przemysław Biskup
no. 32/2018

On 3 May, local government elections were held in some of the most densely populated parts of England, including in London and 34 other metropolitan cities, in which more than 22 million people were eligible to vote. Importantly, they covered areas that in 2016 played a key role in shaping the result of the EU membership referendum. The local elections constituted the first practical test of support for the political parties since the last general election in June 2017.

What were the special circumstances and the broader meaning of the election?

On the eve of the election, Home Secretary Amber Rudd resigned as a result of a crisis over immigration policy (“Windrush Scandal”). Her resignation hit Prime Minister Theresa May, the previous head of the Home Office, and the entire Tory party because it allowed it to be portrayed as racist because of their actions in the scandal that affected black immigrants. Rudd’s resignation also changed the internal government balance on Brexit. In turn, during the campaign Labour faced allegations of anti-Semitism among its party membership and leadership. In addition, local elections in Britain are seen as a test of local party structures’ ability to build up social networks and infrastructure necessary for effectively fighting for seats in the House of Commons. Importantly, any general election in the UK means fighting for 650 separate local majorities in each constituency. The assessments based on local-election performance tend to translate into the mobilisation of financial support and activists for each party.

What were the results?

Labour was moderately successful, winning the most council seats. Nonetheless, its performance was below expectations due to a visible difference in performance inside and outside of large cities. In addition, the number of councils controlled by the party has only marginally increased. The Tories, despite being vulnerable as the ruling party to the protest vote, achieved moderate success by defending their seats. In London and other metropolitan areas, the success of the Liberal Democrats (LibDems) deserves attention while support for the UK Independence Party collapsed (loss of 123 of 126 councillors). When forecasting the results of the next general election in comparison to the last one, the House of Commons would be more fragmented. The election would produce a Tory plurality in the Commons but without a chance to form a stable government. However, in order to govern, Labour would most likely have to create a coalition of all the other parties represented in the Commons against the Tories.

What did the election results mean for social divisions in the context of Brexit?

The results demonstrated the durability of the social divisions that produced the 2016 referendum result. The Labour voting base is dominated by the metropolitan middle class while the Conservatives consolidate the support of traditionalists, including UKIP voters and many of Labour’s traditional voters. Moreover, the Tories seem to be seen by the public as responding to the demand for reducing immigration. Not only did they not suffer electoral losses due to the Windrush scandal, they even increased their support in London's Kensington and Chelsea borough, where the tragic Grenfell Tower fire took place. Labour, on the other hand, seems to have lost many Jewish votes and control of London’s Barnet council over the allegations of anti-Semitism.

How will the largest political parties read the election results?

The election will be analysed as an important test of electoral strategies in the face of an impending snap general election. Labour has grown into a centre of resistance to Brexit while the Conservative Party into the party of Brexit. The Tories’ electoral successes in 2016-18 were possible mainly due to the mobilisation and takeover of UKIP votes. However, maintaining this voter support is impossible without a firm stance in the EU negotiations. Labour faces a conflict between its immediate and long-term goals, namely, a renewed competition with the LibDems for middle-class voters. At the same time, Labour cannot afford to fully alienate their working-class  voters who hold anti-EU views. This is illustrated by the fact that the Labour results improved in communities that in 2016 voted in favour of staying in the EU and deteriorated in those that supported Brexit.

What do the election results mean for negotiating the EU-UK deal?

The elections, conducted at the mid-point of the EU-UK negotiations, strengthened the feeling of uncertainty and of the risk of “no deal” rather than provide answers or solutions. The European Commission’s strategy of using time pressure to persuade the British government to accept the customs union after Brexit will be less effective in light of the Tory Eurosceptic argument that their party’s voters are rewarding a hard line on Brexit. At the same time, the replacement of Rudd by Sajid Javid enabled Eurosceptics in the cabinet to block Prime Minister May’s proposal of a customs agreement with the EU. Moreover, the attractiveness of a snap general election as a solution to the political tie regarding the EU-UK negotiations has decreased due to the anticipated further complication of the position of any new government.


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