This may have been the election in which the Lib Dems finally put tuition fees and the Coalition years behind them. Despite their success, it’s worth noting they still won fewer councillors than in any local election between 1993 and 2010 – but they made big gains from a very low base, and won a national equivalent vote-share of 19%, all of which points to them being back as a significant player.
It was a terrible night for the Conservatives. As the incumbent (nationally and in most areas locally) defending a historic high one would expect losses, but losing over 1300 councillors was appalling, well over the highest ‘expectation management’ put out in advance. Unsurprisingly, being the pro-Brexit party which then fails to deliver Brexit isn’t a winning electoral strategy.
It was also a very bad night for Labour. Labour had done very badly last time these seats were contested and is up against an unpopular government. They should have made huge gains; instead they lost seats. The national equivalent vote-shares from this election puts both Conservative and Labour on 28%: terrible for both parties.
Labour’s loss of councils in places such as Hartlepool demonstrates its continued move away from being a party of the working classes to the party of metropolitan graduates. This is a shift which goes much wider than Brexit. It’s also an increasingly crowded space, shared by the Greens and the Lib Dems.
We can’t say much from this election about Brexit. Yes, support for pro-Remain parties rose, but in many ward, including my own, there was no clearly ‘pro-Brexit’ party. I know a few pro-Brexit, No-Deal Conservative supporters (including at least one Conservative party member) who even voted Lib Dem to send a message to the Conservatives; far more simply stayed home or spoiled their ballot papers. The European elections, where clear pro-Remain and pro-Brexit parties will be standing in every region, will allow us to say much more about the state of the nation here.
The bad news for the two main parties is only just beginning. In this election, without CHUK or the Brexit party standing, they only secured 56% of the vote between them. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the European elections, the Conservatives got less than 15% and Labour less than 20% of the vote.
What impact will all the independents have? Hopefully deliver good local government in the areas they’ve been elected, but it will be interesting to see if they have any broader, or longer term effect.
The Conservative Party may have done itself serious, long-term damage. Brexit could be its tuition fees moment: rightly or wrongly, the level of betrayal and breach of trust perceived by many supporters and members is high. To overcome this is likely to need more than delivering Brexit (though that’s essential). A Blair or Cameron style reinvention is likely to be needed – at a minimum, a new leader, a repudiation of some of what’s gone before and eye-catching new policies that exemplify the change of direction – and that sort of reinvention is very hard to do in government. Otherwise we’re likely to be looking at a Corbyn-led government in 2022.