Living in the UK in the age of Brexit feels strangely like being stranded in a time-loop, as if the country has somehow slipped free of normal planetary rotation. Brexit has consistently featured as the top news item across all media platforms for three years, yet – to return to one of Theresa May’s notorious soundbites – nothing has changed. No agreement has been made between the UK and the rest of the EU on the terms of its departure, let alone on the future relationship that might exist between the two sides. Two Brexit Days – the original Article 50 deadline of 29 March and the supposedly short-term extension to 12 April – have been and gone without event. We’re simply stuck.
Thankfully it seems that, since mid-April, the UK media has finally become bored of watching tumbleweed and has returned to reporting other news. (Miraculously, we can now occasionally listen through an entire news bulletin on the BBC’s flagship Today programme without the B-word being mentioned once.) Nevertheless, like a supervirus, Brexit has suffused and contaminated the entire body politic. 2 May saw local elections across most of England, while the extension to the Article 50 deadline means that the entire country will now participate in the European elections next week. Both ballots have and will be overwhelming dominated by Brexit concerns.
In one of the most centralised states in the Western world, English local elections are generally considered as a bit of political theatre. With local government weak and underfunded, the churn of councillors and mayors are typically seen as indications of public sentiment ahead of the next general election rather than as innately important parts of national political life. Similarly, before the EU referendum was announced in 2013 the British tended to view European elections as an adjunct to ballots for Westminster or the devolved governments in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. The role of MEPs appeared distant and opaque, voter turnout was low and little significance was attached to the results. Yet this year, both sets of elections are set to mark important milestones in the Brexit process.
The strongest sense emerging from the English local election results is just how divided and discredited the two main parties in British politics have become. The Conservatives did terribly, losing 1,330 councillors and conceding control of 44 of England’s 248 councils. This was unsurprising; any government in power for nine years starts to look stale and out of touch, even before counting the failure to leave the EU on time and the comprehensive breakdown of party discipline that have characterised Theresa May’s administration. At least as important as Brexit, a decade of austerity has most affected those policy areas, like housing and social care, for which local government is responsible. Tory councillors cannot blame the shortage of properties or care home places on Westminster when their own party is responsible for the damage.
Nonetheless, Labour hardly looks like it is ready to seize the reins of power. Despite facing down a grossly incompetent government led by a prime minister lacking the most basic shred of credibility, the party still saw a net loss of 84 seats. Desperate attempts by the Labour propaganda machine to play up gains in some areas of England cannot disguise the fact that, in a general election held tomorrow, the party could not return the votes or parliamentary seats to form a governing majority.
The central cause of this double bind is that both main parties rely on an uneasy coalition of Leavers and Remainers. The demographics of each party’s core voters differ, but both include large groups who think (rightly) that too soft an exit would fail to uphold the 2016 referendum result, and those who think (also rightly) that too hard an exit would be an economic catastrophe for the country. The situation is only complicated by the fact that the Tory membership is dominated by hardline Leavers, at odds with the many centrist voters the Tories need to win over to stay in power, and that the Labour membership is dominated by hardline Remainers, at odds with the majority of working-class Leave voters in key swing seats.
In fact, only two national parties saw a net gain in councillors: the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, both pro-European and key members of the alliance campaigning for a second referendum. The main parties’ equivocation over Brexit, combined with a recent spike in environmental consciousness, likely led to many voters switching to parties with strong stances on both the EU and climate change. In addition, both have suffered in recent years at the hands of the main parties – the Lib Dems from their controversial five-year coalition government with the Conservatives, the Greens from a groundswell of Left-wing support for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership – and both are now seeing a correction of those trends.
It is tempting to project these local results directly onto those of the European elections, but the situation is complicated by a different party landscape. In addition to the parties specific to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, two new UK-wide parties will be competing at the ballot box for the first time next week. In one corner, former UKIP leader and longstanding Eurosceptic MEP Nigel Farage has founded the Brexit Party as a new platform to push for the hardest possible EU exit. Farage has a potent case to make to the British public: the 2016 referendum result was a landmark revolt against a corrupt political establishment, yet three years later that same establishment is trying everything it can to thwart Brexit, either through a soft withdrawal agreement that would leave Britain aligned with the bloc or a second referendum to overturn the first. Only weeks after its registration the Brexit Party is already polling in first place at a projected 34% of the vote.
In the other corner stands Change UK, arguably the purest anti-Brexit choice on offer. Earlier this year, a small group of Labour and Conservative MPs defected from their parties to form the Independent Group in parliament before founding Change UK as their platform for the European elections. The reasons for the defections were varied and include deep personal issues (such as the savage anti-Semitic abuse directed at Luciana Berger by some pro-Palestinian elements in the Labour Party) but the MPs shared a sense that their respective parties had been captured by radical fringe factions. Contrary to its name and rhetoric, Change is the continuity option for those sympathetic to the consensus observed by successive governments from the early-1980s to the mid-2010s - which, of course, included Britain’s membership of a neoliberal European Union.
With the Brexit and Change parties in the mix, the ballot sheets now being printed ahead of polling day could include up to six viable options across Great Britain, plus the major Celtic nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales. Under a list-based electoral system and with large regional constituencies covering both pro-Remain cities and university areas and pro-Leave towns and villages, Britain’s next delegation of 71 MEPs is likely to be a wild jumble of representatives from different parties.
Taken together, the terrain of the local and European elections suggests a generalised breakdown of the historical norms of British party politics. For centuries, the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system has maintained the dominance of large, broad-church parties by inflating a moderate share of the vote into a clear majority of seats in parliament. When a period of major changes eroded a party’s societal base that party was usurped by a fresher but similarly-structured alternative, and the system adapted to endure. Today, however, the system is falling apart. No party has won a safe majority since Tony Blair’s last victory in 2005, and it does not look remotely likely that any will in the near future.
As a fundamentally divisive force across British society, Brexit did not initiate this transition but has certainly exacerbated it. The inability of either the Conservatives or Labour to build a majority spanning the Brexit divide may mark the end of two-party politics as the British have traditionally understood it. The great irony is that, as voters drift off to support smaller and more specific parties, the UK political system will increasingly resemble those of continental Europe. If our democracy is to remain functional, deals will have to be done, compromises will have to be made - and Brexit will have made the UK more European than ever.