Major parties suffer in local elections as voters vent Brexit frustration
Conservatives shed seats and councillors and Labour fail to make progress, while Liberal Democrats celebrate breakthrough.
Voters have vented their anger at the two main parties over the continuing Brexit deadlock as both the Tories and Labour suffered losses in the English council elections.
Conservatives shed more than 400 seats and 16 councils in early results, with voters apparently expressing frustration at the Government’s failure to deliver Brexit as promised on March 29.
There were calls from Tory MPs for Theresa May’s removal as leader, with senior Brexiteer Sir Bernard Jenkin warning that the party would be “toast” unless it “mends its ways pretty quickly”.
But Labour also struggled, losing seats at a point in the electoral cycle when they could expect to be making significant gains at the expense of the Government.
In contrast, the Liberal Democrats were enjoying a good night, with some predictions that they could pick up as many as 500 seats.
With results in from 109 of the 248 councils where elections are being held, the Conservatives had lost 409 seats and Labour 60, while the Lib Dems had gained 283 and the Greens 35.
There were 85 more independent councillors, while Ukip lost eight.
With some analysts predicting overall Tory loses of 800 seats or more, Brexit Minister James Cleverly suggested it would be a good result if they could be kept down to 500.
“If it was 500 rather than 1,000 I would be happy with that,” he said.
The Conservatives lost Peterborough, Basildon, Southend, Worcester, St Albans, Welwyn Hatfield, Folkestone and Hythe, Broxtowe, Tendring and Tandridge to no overall control while Winchester, Chelmsford, Bath and North East Somerset, Somerset Wesand Taunton, Vale of White Horse, Cotswold and Hinckley and Bosworth fell to the Liberal Democrats, with North Kesteven going to independents.
However the party held on in the bellwether council of Swindon, seen as a possible Labour gain, and took Walsall and North East Lincolnshire from no overall control.
Certainly among Conservative activists and council candidates there is an almost universal feeling that it is time for her (Theresa May) to move on Sir Bernard Jenkin
Education Minister Nadhim Zahawi said the losses reflected the anger among voters over Brexit and called on MPs to rally behind Theresa May’s deal.
“Because we haven’t been able to deliver Brexit on March 29 we are seeing these results,” he said.
“The Prime Minister has stretched every sinew, she has tried everything. We can keep blaming the Prime Minister, ultimately it is in the hands of us parliamentarians.”
Sir Bernard Jenkin said voters overwhelmingly believed that she had “lost the plot” and that the time had come for a change of leader.
“They can see that she has lost the plot. They can see she is not in control of events,” he said.
“Certainly among Conservative activists and council candidates there is an almost universal feeling that it is time for her to move on.”
His comments were echoed by former cabinet minister Priti Patel who said voters saw Mrs May as “part of the problem”.
“I just don’t think we can continue like this. We need change, we need a change of leadership. Perhaps the time has now come for that,” she told the BBC.
Labour meanwhile lost control in Bolsover, Hartlepool and Wirral and the mayoralty in Middlesbrough, where its vote was down 11% as independent Andy Preston was elected, although it did gain Trafford from no overall control.
Even where the party held on in its traditional stronghold of Sunderland, which voted heavily for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, it still lost 10 council seats.
Council leader Graham Miller said the party had paid the price for its stance on Brexit, with some MPs calling for a second referendum.
“The people of Sunderland have said ‘We are just not accepting that’. We have seen a massive protest vote on that issue tonight,” he said.
And MP Jess Phillips blamed the party’s position on Brexit, which has seen it offer support for a second referendum only in a limited set of circumstances.
“I think our position on Brexit has failed,” said the Birmingham Yardley MP. “Bravery is needed. If you combine kindness and effectiveness with a bit of grit most people will respect you even when they don’t always agree.”
Labour’s national elections co-ordinator Andrew Gwynne accepted it had been “a difficult set of elections” for the party and that Brexit had “undoubtedly” been a factor.
Feels so good to see fabulous Lib Dem candidates winning and enjoying their well-deserved success. ❤— Jo Swinson (@joswinson) May 3, 2019
Positive news coming in from Vale of White Horse, North Norfolk, St Albans, Bath & NE Somerset, Hinckley & Bosworth... and many more places still to count. Well done! 💪🏼🔶️ pic.twitter.com/moJK4Z65WA
“We have to look at the reasons why the Labour vote either didn’t come out or felt frustrated and voted for independents and smaller parties,” he told Radio 4’s Today programme.
“Undoubtedly, Brexit played a part in the results. It was the first opportunity people have had to vote and there’s been that sense of frustration.”
Polling expert Professor Sir John Curtice of Strathclyde University said the voters appeared to be punishing whichever of the main two parties was in control in their area.
“The Labour Party is losing where they are strong historically, the Conservatives are losing where they are strong historically. It’s a plague on all your houses,” he said.
I'm off to bed as have to be up at 7am to do the school run. My final word is that I think our position on Brexit has failed. Bravery is needed. If you combine kindness and effectiveness with a bit of grit most people will respect you even when they don't always agree.— Jess Phillips Esq., (@jessphillips) May 3, 2019
In contrast, the Liberal Democrats, who fought on a pro-Remain platform, were in buoyant mood.
As well as picking up councils from the Tories, they took North Norfolk and North Devon from no overall control.
Home affairs spokesman Sir Edward Davey said the results were “equivalent to our best strides forward ever in our history”.
“We are clearly back in the game,” said Sir Edward. “People have been frustrated with the appalling Tory Government, who have let them down not just on Brexit but with cuts to police and schools, and a split opposition with such poor leadership.
“They have been crying out for a strong alternative. The Liberal Democrats have proven we are that strong alternative to the Tories and Labour.”