British local government elections have national – and international - implications

By Kim Joo-heon Posted : May 17, 2024, 08:22 Updated : May 17, 2024, 08:23
Arthur I Cyr
Arthur I. Cyr
KENOSHA, May 17 (AJU PRESS) - Britain’s local elections do not receive much international attention. That is a mistake. Generally, they are an excellent indicator of how the parties will do in the national elections.

In the May 2 elections, the Liberal Democrats won big, with 768 gains. The Labour Party gained 545, the Greens 480, while the governing Conservative Party lost a massive 1783.
This is the third successive year of significant Liberal Democrat advance. Last year they gained 415 net seats, the year before 224 seats. Cumulatively this is very significant, and may indicate realignment of British politics.

The United Kingdom (Britain plus Northern Ireland) has a complex tapestry of local authorities. These elections included London borough councils, local authorities in Scotland and Wales, and the assembly in Northern Ireland.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party suffered major defeat, following great losses in last year’s elections. Hardships related to Brexit, the departure from the European Union, is part of the explanation and has involved far-reaching political and social as well as economic dislocations, some profound in nature. Inflation has been extremely high, now slowing.

Boris Johnson, Sunak’s predecessor, left major problems for the Conservative Party. They include scandals regarding members of Johnson’s government breaking their own pandemic rules to attend parties.

The government retains their enormous House of Commons majority won in the general election of December 2019, but now faces enormous domestic political challenges.

In the nineteenth century, the popular Victorian musical team of Gilbert and Sullivan could declare every baby was born “a little Liberal or else a little Conservative.” In the twentieth century, the working class emerged to achieve the vote, and massive numbers meant the Labour Party replaced the Liberals.

Nonetheless, two-party dominance remained.

The last half of the 20th century witnessed rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties, revival of the Liberals, and continued growth of support for the successor Liberal Democrats. Single-issue parties also profited. The Brexit and Green parties focused respectively on exiting the European Union and promoting environmental concerns.

Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May succeeded David Cameron in 2016, after the surprise defeat of his referendum aimed at remaining in the European Union (EU). She negotiated complex withdrawal accords with the Eurocrats in Brussels, only to face rejection three times in Parliament, including from her own party.
Finally, well-meaning Good Citizen May was replaced by Bombastic Boris Johnson, who rushed through general leave-Europe legislation, postponing details. The eventual cost includes renewed violence in Northern Ireland, but Britain left the EU.

On May 2, 2019, local government elections in England and Northern Ireland saw losses for both Conservatives and Labour. Liberal Democrats and Greens made notable gains. In 2020, the pandemic postponed local elections. In 2021, the Scottish National Party made significant gains, along with the Greens and Liberal Democrats.

Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University in Scotland is insightful and influential. His analyses for the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) note the Liberal Democrats’ success.

Significant numbers of people back the Liberal Democrats precisely because they are not part of the traditional Conservative/Labour establishment. Many such partisans viewed joining Conservatives in coalition government 2010~2015 as a form of treason, and the Liberal Democrats consequently suffered severe reversals at the polls.

Today as in the past, Britain combines intense partisanship with stability. Decades ago, Professor Samuel H. Beer provides durable analysis. His approach emphasizes long-term change within stability.


This article was contributed by Arthur I. Cyr, author of "After the Cold War -- American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia" (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He has taught at the Universities of Chicago and Illinois, Northwestern University, and Carthage College (Clausen Distinguished Professor).
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