Dr. Stephen Barber argues that the forthcoming European elections will see many voters ditch traditional party allegiances in favour of third-party candidates. In response, the main parties will become more hard-line leaving the centre-ground up for grabs.
The unmissable feature of the European Election build up so far is that coverage has been dominated not by the governing party or even the official opposition but instead by Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party, Change UK and the Liberal Democrats. It is no surprise as this is an unexpected, consequence-free election where voters can express their dismay over the state of Brexit, lining up behind parties who want opposite outcomes: the hardest of exits or to call the whole thing off. The Conservatives are haemorrhaging support and Labour cannot agree on a position. But that would be to ignore the striking polarisation to have befallen British politics since 2017. Could the European elections mean a return of pluralism? Maybe, but it doesn’t mean a return of consensus.
Going back in history, at the 1951 general election – which saw the return of Winston Churchill to Downing Street – a paltry 3.2 % of voters chose candidates who were not either Conservative or Labour. Until now, that was the smallest third party vote since the war but the two big parties each polled above 40% right through until the two elections of 1974 where both slipped below the threshold for the first time. Since then, the trend had been convincingly towards pluralism with more voters supporting alternative parties and more MPs who are not Conservative or Labour being elected. This peaked in 2010 when a full 35% of votes went to third party candidates leading to 86 MPs not taking the Conservative or Labour Whip (the low had been just seven in 1959). Britain had turned into a plural political system and that year saw the first coalition since Churchill’s wartime government. It seemed that the trend in voting meant coalitions would be commonplace in Britain in the future.
But then came 2017. Post-Brexit Britain was once again polarised not only between Leave and Remain but also in party preferences. As Conservatives and Labour took up more entrenched positions increasingly vacating the centre ground, the two parties again dominated the scene taking more than 82% of votes between them. Both saw a swing in their favour which would usually have secured an outright election victory. Theresa May’s Conservative gained 5.5%, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour gained 9.6% – and yet neither won a parliamentary majority.
So, could the pluralist drought be over? The local elections are a strong indication that it is. The Conservatives lost hundreds of seats and 20 councils but these were not won by Labour who also lost significant numbers of councillors. The big winners were Britain’s traditional third party the pro-EU Liberal Democrats; a party in the doldrums since the coalition. Billed as a ‘Brexit Backlash’, it is worth noting that the Lib Dems have not simply done well in Remain regions but have seen a resurgence of support in the parts of the country where they have traditionally had roots. Greens did well. Independents of all kinds found voters receptive. Deliberately spoiled ballot papers were common.
This is an indication that voters are willing and eager to reject the two big parties as the European elections approach. Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, unrepresented in the local government elections, has positioned itself clearly as demanding a hard Brexit. The Lib Dem resurgence demonstrates it is a key player with a clear message itself demanding a second EU referendum. The question now is whether the Remain parties, vying with each other for support, can get their act together and campaign with clarity and unity.
A return of pluralism means the centre ground is up for grabs once again. The irony for Labour and Conservatives is that terrible results in Local and European elections are likely to persuade many party activists that their leaderships should pursue even more hard line positions on the EU as well as a host of other policies. As voters return to third party candidates once again, the pragmatic consensual politics required for pluralist and coalition politics is nowhere in sight.