The polls said it would be bad for Labour. But no one expected it to be this bad. On Thursday, Britons voted in local county elections and elections for the European Parliament. The result was a devastating repudiation of Gordon Brown’s tottering government, and of the cause of European integration.
First, the local numbers. England’s divided up into 34 counties. After the elections, the Conservatives control 30 of them. The Liberal Democrats run one county council. The remaining three are not controlled by any one party. There are 2,362 council seats. The Conservatives went into the election with over a thousand more than Labour. They now have 1,531. Across all of England, Labour lost 291 seats and now has only 178. The Tories now completely dominate local government in England, with only the Liberal Democrats retaining any strength.
As bad as that is, the results in the European elections were even worse for Labour. It took third place, with just over 15 percent of the vote. It was lucky to do that well: the Liberal Democrats were only two percentage points behind it. The winners were the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), on over 17 percent of the vote, and, of course, the Tories, with over 28 percent. Both UKIP and the Conservatives increased their vote share. All in all, it was the worst showing for Labour in a national election since 1918.
The first takeaway from the results is the simple, obvious one that the British people have lost all confidence in Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in the Labour Party, and in the government. And the reason for that is clear: Britain’s economy is in terrible shape, as are the state’s finances. As Brown was Chancellor of the Exchequer – like being Secretary of the Treasury in the U.S., but with a lot more power – for a decade, he has found it impossible to escape responsibility for the economic implosion. Add in a scandal with Parliamentary expenses that has made a lot of MPs – from all the parties – look greedy and out of touch, and it’s not surprising Labour got hammered.
But the Tories weren’t the only beneficiaries. UKIP, the Greens, the British National Party, and other minor parties all gained vote share, as did the Scottish Nationalists and the stay-at-home vote. The elections show that large numbers of Britons have lost confidence in all three of the major parties. In the light of the expenses scandal, that’s not surprising. The Tories had a great night, but the biggest winner of all may have been ‘none of the above.’ That sentiment was partly what drove the UKIP vote, which hurt the Tories. Similarly, the success of the BNP, as Philip Johnston of the Telegraph has pointed out, “is a direct result of the failure of mainstream parties, notably Labour, which traditionally represents the areas where the BNP is strongest.”
To an extent, Britain’s voting pattern was not distinctive: the right made gains across most of Europe, and turnout set a new low. That points out a lesson that the results in Britain reinforce: the voters have lost confidence in the European project as a whole, and in many of the elite, establishment parties that have spent the past fifty years advancing it. That accounts for most of UKIP’s strength, for at least some of the BNP’s vote, and for the success of the minor parties. Simply put, the left and the European Union are running out of steam and shedding supporters: both are establishment causes, and both are paying the price for it.
Britain’s Tories look likely to ride to power on the back of this sentiment, in an election that could come as early as October. If the Conservatives win, they will have the serious responsibility of addressing the errors that have proven so costly in practical terms, and alienated so many Britons from the system.