30 April, 2019| Analysis

How might the Brexit Party and Change UK influence the local elections from afar?

This week's council elections will not feature any Brexit Party or Change UK candidates, and yet their impact on the contests may be felt still

This week’s council elections are the among the most unpredictable and potentially the most exciting in recent memory. Across England and Northern Ireland, almost 9000 seats are up for grabs. With a healthy mixture of Non-Metropolitan Districts (mostly Conservative held/leaning), Metropolitan Boroughs (mostly Labour held/leaning), and Unitary Authorities (spread pretty evenly between the two), we will get a good chance to see how parties are currently performing across a range of different settings. And the hugely volatile currents in the British political air will serve quite the test for established parties looking to defend seats and councils across the country.

Brexit is dominating the headlines, political discussion, and the mind-sets of many voters up and down the country. While neither of the Brexit Party nor Change UK – The Independent Group are standing candidates anywhere on Thursday, their impact will surely be felt as Leave (and what kind of Leave) vs Remain looks set once again to be the dominant voter dynamic.

Voters looking forward to backing Farage’s and Allen’s respective parties later this month in the Euros but for now forced to pick between already-established parties will be focus of this piece.

As I explored for the UK in a Changing Europe in a recent blog, both the Brexit Party and Change UK look set to have significant impacts on the upcoming European election contests – the former particular so.

While not fielding candidates for the local contests on Thursday, the impact of these two hardcore Leave and Remain (respectively) political parties could have sizeable consequences for voting behaviour at the ballot box in three days time.

Namely – what will voters do on May 2nd who are set on backing the Brexit Party and Change UK on May 23rd? The two new entries into the British political system have been driving voters away from the established parties (particularly Labour and the Conservatives), adding to the ever polarising and divisive debate, but where will they go now?

Supporters of Farage’s Brexit Party are, according to the polls for the moment, overwhelmingly backed Leave in 2016 and voted Conservative in the 2017 General Election. Will they return to the Conservatives briefly for the locals? Will they jump ship to Labour in protest at the government’s handling of Brexit? Or could they go elsewhere (if indeed they go out at all)?

Realistically, the circa 25% of the voting public expressing intention to back the Brexit Party are highly unlikely to move toward the more Remain-y end of the current political spectrum, given the ‘hard Brexit’ appeal of Farage.

As for the Conservatives, Theresa May and her party are the root cause of their current frustrations over Brexit, so it also seems fairly unlikely that many voters will return to the Tory roots later this week.

So, one of the slightly surprising beneficiaries of the Brexit Party moment instead could be UKIP. Many 2016 Leave and 2017 Conservative voters are very likely to have backed UKIP prior to those two events. Returning to them, as the original party of Brexit (they could very easily argue), or indeed moving to UKIP for the first time would seem quite logical. UKIP offers a very similar outlook on Brexit to Farage and his party, and in their absence could be well placed to capitalise on Brexit frustrations.

As such, UKIP may do surprisingly well in the coming local election, hold on to many more seats than in the previous two cycles (2017 and 2018), and perhaps also take a number of seats in previous areas of strength and Leave-supporting areas (watch out for Bolton, Oldham, Derby, and Sunderland).

On the other side of the coin, the 2016 Remain vote is currently fairly evenly dispersed mostly across four parties, according to current European and General Election voting intention. Each of Labour (with whom the current plurality of Remain voters lie), the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and Change UK are attracting at least 10% of Remain voters expressing intention to turn out on May 23rd. But what will these figures look like in the much-sooner locals?

ChangeUK will of course not be on any of the ballots, but their efforts to mobilise anti-Brexit voters present opportunities for other pro-EU parties who are contesting council seats. Labour’s current ambiguity and ongoing controversy of its backtracking on a confirmatory referendum (current party policy which is not featured in its election materials) means that, as with the Conservatives and 2016 Leave voters, Labour might struggle to hang on to its supporters who place high value on the issue of aborting Brexit and remaining in the European Union. Instead, the Liberal Democrats and Greens could be set to take advantage of strong pro-EU sentiments among many voters across different councils holding elections on Thursday.

Local authorities such as the Wirral, Wokingham, Trafford, St Albans, Liverpool, and Stockport all voted to Remain in the European Union on June 23rd 2016, and as such provide fertile ground for the two strongest advocates of remaining in the EU now (aforementioned Liberal Democrats and Greens) to pick up voters and win seats.

In all, the impact of Britain’s two newest political parties and the ever polarising and fraught political debate surrounding Brexit will undoubtedly have an impact on the upcoming local elections. Voters supercharged on pro-Brexit and pro-EU sentiments will, and particularly in the absence of the Brexit and Change UK parties, likely be driven toward supporting other non-traditional British parties in the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, and the Greens, who may well each have very pleasing news to wake up to on Friday 3rd.