It is a good moment to be a Liberal Democrat, after the party’s strong showing in last week’s local elections. The party were unequivocal winners, while both the the big parties fell back. After years of being ignored and told that the party was broken forever, it is good to be back.
But it is better than that. What the results show is that the party is rebuilding its grassroots strength, and with it a base in local government. This has been the party’s secret weapon, little understood by the Westminster chatterers – local government was how the party built its strength in the 1990s, before it became a significant parliamentary force in 1997. This is the result of hard work by activists working at local level across the country. It wasn’t just the Lib Dems. What surprised the political commentators even more than the success of the Lib Dems, which was as the upper end of expectations, was the relative success of the Greens and local independents. This too required grassroots activism.
Meanwhile the Conservatives, who had the most to lose this time, did very badly, losing over 1,300 seats, at the top end of expectations. The seats were last fought on a relative high for the party in 2015, so some loss was expected. They did worst in areas with a high Remain vote in 2016. What really surprised commentators was how Labour failed to capitalise on this. The party gained seats in some places, but lost in others, with a small net loss of seats overall. Nobody was expecting a spectacular performance, but if the Tories were doing very badly, they were expected to pick up some of the pieces. Unlike the Conservatives, Labour fared worse in high Leave supporting areas.
The retreat of the main parties comes as a surprise to many politicos. Two party politics had been in decline for since the 1980s, with the rise of first the Lib Dems (and their predecessor parties) and then Ukip. But in the 2017 general election both the Lib Dems and Ukip were crushed. This was a huge relief to both Conservatives and Labour, and to many Westminster journalists too. Two party politics seemed to them the natural way of being, and allowed most politicians to focus on their internal party jockeying, rather than having to talk to voters much. Life became much simpler.
But that collective sigh of relief was a huge mistake, as both major parties turned inwards. The Conservatives tore themselves up over Brexit. To be sure this was an important issue, but they assumed that whenever they went to the country they could rally the voters around an anti-Labour message, and get away with it. First they managed to upset their supporters who voted Remain, only to disappoint the Leavers by failing to agree on how to implement Brexit on the target date of 29 March. The indecision is worse than choosing the wrong strategy: now Remainers who had been persuaded to buckle down in the name of democracy are starting to question that logic, as so many Brexiteers try to move the goalposts towards something much more extreme than they advocated in 2016.
Labour, meanwhile tore itself up over an internal power struggle, as the left saw its chance to take a radical left wing programme to the country by consolidating their power within the party. If the Tories cared too much about Brexit, Labour did not care enough. They assumed that the Tories would make such a mess that they would clean up at the next election. That left them with little to say on the big issue of the day. Labour Brexiteers are annoyed at the party’s role in delaying Brexit; meanwhile the party is unable to pick up disillusioned Remainers from the Conservatives.
That meant a poor performance at these English locals for both big parties, which each picked up a 28% vote share, the lowest combined total for many years. There is likely to be an even worse performance at the forthcoming elections for the European parliament, though they should be able to shrug these off, as they have in the past.
The key question is how much this matters at a general election. The electoral system makes it hard for smaller parties to break through. Both the big parties have some reason to hope that it will be business as usual. That would be complacent.
Firstly neither party looks well placed to roll back the threat from the SNP in Scotland, which will be critical to Labour’s chances in particular, but also important to the Tories. Up to 50 seats may be unavailable. The Lib Dems will doubtless hope that they can get a dozen or more additional seats, with the Conservatives looking the most vulnerable. The Greens look stronger than they were, but can only mount a challenge in a handful of seats.
But the big unknown is how well two brand new parties will perform. The most significant is Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. This has made an impressive start. It looks well organised and well funded. It is sure to do well at the European Parliament elections, which play to its strengths. It is mainly an air war election, and Mr Farage has no difficulty in getting the attention of mainstream media, much to the annoyance of other smaller parties, who are routinely ignored by the BBC among others. The party has also managed to distribute some centrally organised literature. It will doubtless try to make mischief on social media, a successful medium for populist parties not interested in proposing any constructive policy programme. But, though the party attracts interest and volunteers, it has no grassroots organisation. This is not one of Mr Farage’s strengths, and it is a vital ingredient to success at general elections. Mr Farage himself might be a successful spoiler candidate (he is rumoured to be mulling a challenge to Boris Johnson, widely thought to be the the most likely next Conservative leader), but the party may turn out to be no more than a nuisance.
The second new party is the former Independent Group, Change UK. This party appears weak organisationally, and it is unclear what it actually stands for. It is trying its hand at the Euro elections, but even if it does well there (which I am not expecting), it is hard to see where that will lead. Building a grassroots organisation is very hard work, and it is far from clear whether they are up for it. Cannibalising Lib Dem support, a strategy which many in the party clearly wanted to attempt, now looks a lot harder. There are plenty of places where the Lib Dems are weak, though. Will they try to do something there?
So things don’t look so bad for the big parties when it comes to parliamentary elections. But they do have a problem: Brexit. The country could continue to muddle on trying and failing to leave; it could leave with a deal, which will not be unlike the one the government has already negotiated; there could be a crash out with no deal; or there might be a further referendum which halts Brexit altogether, or else leads to exit with or without a deal. Each of these outcomes will cause major problems for both the Conservatives and Labour. Dramatic upsets can happen (for example the rise of the SNP in Scotland in 2015, or the election of Emmanuel Macron in France). It would be foolish to rule such an earthquake out.
What should the progressive smaller parties do? Some kind of an arrangement to stay out of each others’ way looks sensible for the Lib Dems, the Greens and Change UK, whether or not an electoral pact is feasible or desirable. Meanwhile, each of these three needs to think of ways that it can capture the imagination of a public that is fed up with politics as usual. If these parties could agree on a broad programme of political reform, radical action on the environment, and revitalising left-behind parts of the country, perhaps that would do the trick.