What the local elections really mean for Brexit

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What the local elections really mean for Brexit

The UK remaining in the customs union and delivering the UK’s departure from the European Union are mutually exclusive. Bruce Newsome argues Theresa May’s proposals only underscore her inability to understand voters’ wants. 

The Conservative Party is rightly praising its own performance in the local elections, but the credit is local not national. Local elections don’t necessarily prove anything about a national party – your particular council could switch parties because of a leadership scandal, a disputed planning application, a high street redevelopment, or any number of things that are unambiguously local, not national. Yet politicians and commentators are seeking meaning for Brexit, which is a national and international issue. What do the local elections really mean?

Well, first of all, the Conservatives are no more victorious in 2018 than 2017. If the local elections were mapped on to a national election, the Conservatives still would not achieve a working majority in the House of Commons. Don’t forget, Theresa May is in government only with the support of the Democratic Unionists from Northern Ireland, after she lost seats in the national election of almost a year ago. In a hypothetical national election based on this local election of May 2018, the Conservative Party would probably lose seats; the Labour and the Scottish Nationalist Parties could form a coalition government, but the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats could not, even if they wanted (and I struggle to imagine Vince Cable backtracking on his repudiation of the exceptional Con-Lib coalition of 2010 to 2015). Voters aren’t giving any party outright government, but they’re clearly giving more chance to a socialist coalition than a conservative one.

The Labour Party has consolidated its gains from 2017. Many analysts have pointed out that the Labour Party failed to win its targets in London, but the Conservatives didn’t encroach on strong Labour control of Birmingham, despite years of scandals around organized sexual abuse of under-age girls, Islamist take-overs of school boards, and union militancy. These elections don’t suggest that voters regard conservatives as the best governors.

The Conservative Party has gained from local Conservative good governance and national opposition mistakes rather than national Conservative initiatives. The national opposition fiasco is most obvious in the Labour Party’s anti-Semitism, which has been the focus of reporting in recent months. Yet the Conservative Party has failed to expand the focus to the wider hypocrisies of progressive politics, such as the inevitable discrimination against one minority (Jews; white girls; the working poor; native citizens) whenever progressives affirm another (Muslims; women of colour; the idle poor; illegal migrants). Days before the local elections, progressive hypocrisy on racism was epitomized by progressive description of the new Home Secretary (Sajid Javid) as a “coconut” for not choosing the socialism that they assume all persons of colour should choose.

The Conservatives under Theresa May simply lack a compelling conservative vision: voters still don’t have any reason to vote Conservative except as an alternative to the looniness that the other parties offer. British politics is currently a comedy of errors, with no party gaining credit; the conservatives are left as the least worst. That’s not an endorsement – the Conservative Party should be taking advantage of its opponents, but instead it is treading water.

May’s handling of Brexit goes a long way to explaining the electorate’s ambivalence towards her party. Brexiteers in Cabinet are prepared to tell the prime minister that Conservative gains in strong Brexit districts prove that the Labour Party is being punished for pledging to stay in the customs union, so she should abandon her attempts to stay in the customs union. The Foreign Secretary (Boris Johnson) has voiced this most explicitly.

I find this argument tenuous and potentially distracting from a larger lesson – voters want certain implementation of popular will. May should abandon the customs union, but this week’s elections are too local to prove that the voters want her to; the local elections prove that voters want a party of Brexit. Brexiteers are left with the Conservative Party as the least worst option given the collapse of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

Given UKIP’s collapse, the Conservative Party should be embracing the role of Brexit party, but Theresa May has not yet escaped her pathology of playing for time, playing both sides, sitting on the fence, and implementing Brexit unwillingly. Her embrace of UKIPers would be in conformity with parts of the Tory press (including The Daily Telegraph and The Sun). Yet she will pretend that she must accommodate warnings against being dragged to the right by UKIPers, which is stupid, because Brexit is a popular cross-wing policy – not a “right-wing” or “populist” policy. She looks no better than the ennobled elites in the House of Lords who keep voting down popular will on Brexit. As long as May is prime minister in this mode, the Conservative Party will remain the least worst option, not the party of outright government.

May needs to establish the Conservative Party as the party of certainty, of implementation of popular will, of popular policies that can be articulated to a conservative vision. Abandoning the customs union is the right policy because voters already voted for Brexit in 2016, and Brexit would be impossible in a customs union that is bundled with principles such as free movement. The fact that May doesn’t understand what voters wants proves her unfitness for the leadership of her party, not just of government.

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    Bruce Newsome
    Bruce Newsome, Ph.D. is a lecturer in International Relations at the University of California Berkeley
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