Broken Britain needs a return to proper politics
The UK’s ruling Conservative Party lost more than 1,300 seats in Thursday’s local authority elections in England. The government now also faces difficult European Parliament elections on May 23 that could be the trigger for a party leadership contest in the second half of 2019, bringing Theresa May’s premiership to an end.
Nearly three years after May entered Downing Street, even many allies now concede she is in the endgame of a premiership that has been defined by Brexit. With the failure so far to deliver a UK withdrawal deal, many voters on Thursday punished not only her party, but also the official opposition Labour Party, with voters often swinging against whichever of these two was previously strongest in given geographies.
In this sense, the vote turned on its head the results of the 2017 general election, to elect MPs to the Westminster Parliament. Then, both main parties won over 80 percent of all votes, their biggest combined share since 1970.
Thursday’s clear winners, with a distinctive anti-Brexit stance, were the Liberal Democrats, who had their best night in local elections for a generation, picking up more than 700 seats. The Liberals, the third-largest UK party in the postwar era, may now be recovering after slumping in the polls after going into coalition with the Conservatives in Westminster from 2010 to 2015.
However, non-Brexit issues were also a factor in Thursday’s elections, from micro-issues such as local planning controversies to bigger national policies. When she became prime minister in July 2016, May inherited many long-standing, contentious, policy decisions ranging from pensions reform and the country’s housing crisis to multibillion-pound infrastructure and transport issues.
To be sure, May has moved forward with a small part of this agenda. However, many key decisions have stalled as the government’s political energy is consumed almost entirely by Brexit.
Only last week, the government admitted it was postponing the “Queen’s Speech” outlining legislative priorities for the next parliamentary session. This decision was taken because of the political weakness of the prime minister, who wants to focus her remaining time and capital in office on trying to drive an EU withdrawal deal through Parliament.
With no obvious path to achieving this objective, May must decide soon how best to try to move forward before the May 23 European Parliament elections. It is a huge political embarrassment to her that the UK is taking part in this election at all, three years after the 2016 Brexit referendum, and the Conservatives will again perform badly.
Thursday’s clear winners, with a distinctive anti-Brexit stance, were the Liberal Democrats, who had their best night in local elections for a generation, picking up more than 700 seats.
With her own withdrawal deal almist certainly dead, there appear to be two main immediate options — continuing the current cross-party talks with Labour, or a further round of indicative votes, albeit perhaps this time on a preferential “knock-out” basis to try to forge a parliamentary compromise. Neither of these, however, is appealing for her as she could well be forced to compromise on one of her previous “red lines” — the United Kingdom remaining in a customs union with the EU, which would further antagonise much of her Conservative base before the May 23 election.
With EU exit issues still dominating government business, it is not just problematic for the Conservatives, but also the country at large, that so many key non-Brexit decisions have been kicked into the political long grass during May’s premiership. With voters’ trust in politics already at a historic low, and stagnant standards of living for many, this has the potential to further undermine confidence in the democratic process.
Especially after the Brexit vote, which underlined widespread disillusionment with UK elites, elected politicians must now show themselves capable of building consensus to overcome key long-term policy challenges. Examples include pensions and housing, and also building public confidence in major issues flagged in the referendum, including immigration.
The danger, if not, is that the rise of populist parties such as the hard-right, anti-Islam UK Independence Party, will pick up steam again with the often half-baked, damaging agendas they champion. May herself has highlighted this risk in what she has called the “potential failure of center-ground politics” unless it tackles tough issues, and responds to public concerns to prevent what she called “fringe politics.”
Meeting these tough-to-solve, first order challenges is a significant hurdle that democratic institutions and politicians must do better at surmounting. For if too many first order policy problems fester without resolution it can even give the perception of a broken process, and that democracy itself has failed.
A key part of the solution is promoting longer-term political outlooks and sensible, cross-party discussion rather than the increasing tendency toward short-termism. There is also a pressing need for wider democratic renewal.
Contrary to what some populist politicians assert, there is no “silver bullet” agenda that can address these challenges overnight. Instead, a long-term, concerted effort is needed to better address these issues through a range of educational, home affairs, economic and other policies.
Collectively, such an agenda can move toward demonstrating more effectively how fair and inclusive democratic politics can overcome or ameliorate the challenges that many people are experiencing in a world changing fast in the face of globalisation. Failure to do so, and better demonstrate the positive impact that mainstream politics can make, may lead only to growing support for fringe politics with its often ill-considered, ineffective policy platforms.
- Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS) at the London School of Economics