The British elections last Thursday were probably the most significant electoral test this parliament, with the Scottish and Welsh parliaments, the London Mayor, and many English councils up for grabs. Everybody had the chance to vote for something. The outcome was underwhelming. Where does that leave the political scene?
The analogy is overblown, but I am reminded of the war that ravaged Europe 100 years ago. In 1916 huge efforts by the major combatants yielded little return on the ground. While the military men looked for breakthrough tactics, these yielded limited results, and in the end it was a matter of stamina and fundamentals.
The results pose uncomfortable questions for all the political parties that took part, major and minor. Most of the attention has focused on Labour. They suffered a further catastrophe in Scotland, falling behind the Conservatives to third place. In England they mainly held their ground, with an impressive victory in London’s Mayoral election. Supporters of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn hail this as vindication – but that only shows how low their expectations have sunk. There is no hint here of how the party can regain power in Westminster. The myth of a hidden bank of left wing voters waiting to be energised by Mr Corbyn has been shown to be just that. But neither is there a disaster enough to fuel Mr Corbyn’s opponents; the Scots meltdown predates his tenure and so had already been written off. The best guess is that the far left will continue to hollow the party out from within, but that the party’s outward status remains largely unchanged. Come the next general election the question is whether the party will implode or simply repeat its dismal performance last time. On this year’s evidence it will be the latter.
For the Conservatives the position looks considerably better. They drifted only gently backwards in English councils; their performance in London was reversion to type, after unexpected success under their Mayor Boris Johnson; and they achieved a remarkable breakthrough in Scotland. But to keep governing beyond 2020 they will need to deliver a killer blow to Labour, while containing any Lib Dem comeback. Can they do that when they are riven by divisions over Europe, will replace their leader with one who has much less public respect, and while their government programme keeps being derailed by backbench discontent? Meanwhile their tactics in London, where they tried to toxify Labour’s Sadiq Khan by associating him with Mr Corbyn and Muslim extremists, failed, and may have damaged the party’s brand.
The SNP maintained their grip on Scottish politics but lost their overall majority. They have completed an astonishing pivot to the left, allowing the Tories a bit more breathing space, and leaving Scots to wonder what the point of Labour is. It is hard to see how anybody is going to deliver a knockout blow, but more Scots will surely start to tire of them. The only way seems to be down.
Ukip cemented their status as a major UK party, with breakthroughs in the Welsh Parliament and London Assembly, and consolidation of their role as Labour’s main opposition in parts of the north of England. But they are a party of oddballs, and it is hard to see how they can maintain their coherence. As a party of local government in England, they won only 15% of the seats of the supposedly down and out Lib Dems; this is a weak grassroots base.
The Greens moved forwards in Scotland, and held their own in London, where they are established as the third party by popular vote. But in English council seats for every gained they lost a seat somewhere else, to end up with even fewer seats than Ukip. Their switch to the left, while downplaying their environmentalism, looks to have been a strategic error, with the wind taken out of their sails by the revival of the Labour left.
And my own Lib Dems? There were quite a few successes; they gained more English council seats than any other party, and are approaching half the Conservative total. They comfortably retain their position as the third party of local government. There were striking constituency wins in Scotland and one in Wales. But all the Lib Dem successes boiled down to pockets of local strength, where they are deeply embedded into civic society. They have shown their ability to claw back ground from the Tories in particular, and even the SNP. But talk of a revival of fortunes belongs in the same category of optimism as the Labour left’s. The party was reduced to a single seat in both the Welsh parliament and London Assembly, and fell behind the Greens in Scotland. They struggle to reach 5% in proportionally elected contests, an irony for a party that is so in favour of this type of election. The party has not established clear political ground for itself and remains confused as to whether its coalition years were its finest hour or a terrible mistake. The party fights irrelevance in most of the land.
Plaid Cymru continued to move sideways. The politics of Wales remains quite different from that in Scotland, and the party seems quite unable to replicate the SNP’s success.
And nobody else made an impact. The Women’s Equality party was launched last year in a big media splash, and tried its luck in London, but got nowhere. The nativist Britain First is another new party, which has a big presence on social media, and it put in a performance that beat other competitors in its space (such as the British National Party), but still only managed a derisory result. For all the claimed discontent of the public with established politicians, there is not even a faint sign of an insurgency that could take off.
So British politics is in deadlock. The Conservatives have a narrow majority in the UK parliament but lack the discipline to govern decisively. There is no evidence as yet that they are going to break out of this. But neither is there any sign of a party or coalition of parties that can knock them off their perch.
There is a broad lesson here about British politics that is not given enough weight by most commentators. Political success requires a strong grassroots infrastructure and solid organisation, built up over many years, as well as being able to chime with some part of the zeitgeist. Labour and the Conservatives have achieved this more or less across Britain, now that the former are rebuilding themselves in Scotland. Fear of losing this vital political infrastructure stops either party from breaking apart, in spite of huge political divisions. The SNP has this in Scotland and is consolidating. That the Lib Dems are in the fight at all after failing so spectacularly to hit the zeitgeist is testament to their pockets of grassroots strength and penetration of institutions like the House of Lords; they have something to work with. Ukip and the Greens have attempted to build their own infrastructure but are finding it desperately hard going. Nobody else stands a chance. There will be no unconventional uprising like Italy’s Five Star movement. It is also very hard for a nativist insurgency, such as that of Donald Trump in the US, or the Front National in France, to get traction – though Ukip has tried.
And so we are locked in stalemate. The biggest threat to this dynamic is if one or other of the major parties breaks up under the strain. The second possibility is that the Tories get their act together sufficiently to deliver a knock-out punch to a Labour Party that does not look interested in government. As yet there is no sign of either.