At this precarious stage in British politics, after a slew of crucial by-elections (both local and parliamentary), it is worth looking at each of the major national political parties’ performance and prospects – particularly in light of the two parliamentary by-elections on the 23rd February in Stoke-on-Trent Central and Copeland. It should be noted, however, that voter turnout at by-elections tends to be lower than in general elections.
Theresa May’s Conservatives: Going Steady?
Although it could have earlier been argued that the Conservatives faced serious divisions prior to and immediately after the Brexit vote, the Prime Minister polls strongly for a governing party (and even more so when compared to Jeremy Corbyn, the official opposition party leader). When Article 50 is formally triggered, these high approval ratings will provide a confident backdrop from which the government can go forward. Looking at this poll of polls from Britain Elects reveals how major national political parties have been polling since May 2015:
According to this data, the greatest change in sentiment occurred after the Brexit vote. Since then, Labour has been facing a steadily downward and depressing trend, UKIP has not recovered from a sharp drop, and the Greens have not changed significantly (essentially flatlining). On the other hand, though the Conservatives experienced a brief (albeit sharp) drop, they have since recovered and charged ahead to fresh highs, maintaining this – while the Liberal Democrats (of whom the author is a member and approved parliamentary candidate) has experienced a steady, positive trend since the Brexit vote.
Even if one concedes the fallibility of polling, Theresa May currently has a rather commanding lead. But since Britain is experiencing a particularly turbulent and uncertain time, this can easily change. Interestingly, the following chart (also from Britain Elects) shows that the Conservatives suffered the largest net loss (33 seats) of all political parties in council by-elections during 2016:
Nevertheless, May’s Conservatives are in a steady position and the divisions between Conservatives who initially wanted to remain in the EU versus those who vehemently campaigned to leave seem to have been put aside, with the party putting forward a seemingly sound, public face. This is reflected in the most recent results from the Copeland by-election where the Conservatives pulled off a historic win:
However, even these seemingly optimistic results may be overblown since the by-election saw the Prime Minister and even former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne campaigning alongside the Conservative parliamentary candidate. Of course, this looks like a vote of confidence for the government but the sheer scale of resources thrown at the election might suggest that the Conservatives’ footing may not be as steady as was once thought, despite the win.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Are Set to Overcome a Setback
On the one hand, critics point to the aforementioned loss of Copeland as a sign of Labour’s decline under Corbyn. But the circumstances of Copeland were very specific, because Jeremy Corbyn has historically been very vocal against nuclear power whilst many jobs in the constituency rely upon nuclear power. Less attention is paid to the fact that Labour successfully defended Stoke-on-Trent Central in the February 23rd by-election:
After all, the mainstream, ‘Big Media’ outlets are overwhelmingly anti-Corbyn, and Labour parliamentarians certainly do not make it any easier for him. On the one hand, although there have been reports that Labour has lost 26,000 members since the summer (most likely due not only to their stance toward Brexit but to party infighting in particular), they still remain the largest political party in Britain by a considerable margin.
The real, upcoming test for Corbyn’s leadership, popularity and policies is the Liverpool City Region mayoral election (due to be held on the 4th May 2017). Here, Ladbrokes have Labour as the favourites with odds of 1/10, followed by Carl Cashman of the Liberal Democrats at 16/1. The Labour candidate is Steve Rotheram MP, who has been the Parliamentary Private Secretary to Jeremy Corbyn since 2015, and who has yet to resign unlike many of his former colleagues (as such, one could reasonably presume that he is rather loyal to Jeremy Corbyn).
Corbyn does seem to be rather popular in Liverpool (which is nonetheless more accurately characterised as anti-Conservative rather than being a strictly pro-Labour stronghold).
Tim Farron’s Liberal Democrats Continue Their Resurgence
Although the Liberal Democrats have 9 MPs in the House of Commons, they have been extremely vocal in the campaign against the Government’s handling of Brexit and, furthermore, over 100 Lib Dem peers have crucially held the Government to account on aspects of the Article 50 Bill. Such is the efficacy and effectiveness of the Liberal Democrats’ campaigning that one of Britain’s richest people has gifted £1m to the Lib Dem fightback (being one of the biggest donations the party has had in several years).
It was reported that the Liberal Democrats had even overtaken Labour’s funding in the fourth quarter of 2016. The party’s President, Sal Brinton, stated: “These donations are because of Brexit. People want a voice that believes Britain is open, tolerant and united. Millions of people want to be heard, and a clear voice saying Britain must stay in the heart of Europe. This voice is the Liberal Democrats. Labour do not offer that anymore, they are Theresa May’s cheerleaders. Money is not the full picture here: we have made a famous by-election victory in Richmond Park, made 30 council gains up and down the country, and have our highest membership this century. Whatever is going on in Jeremy Corbyn’s divided and extreme Labour party, it is clear the Liberal Democrat fightback is on, providing the real opposition to the Conservative Brexit government.”
Indeed, the Liberal Democrats have made the strongest net gains in council by-elections in 2016 (29, the highest of any political party), as shown in the aforementioned chart:
Even though the Lib Dems lost the Copeland and Stoke by-elections to the Conservatives and Labour respectively, both Lib Dem candidates – Rebecca Hanson and Zulfiqar Ali – managed to significantly increase the party’s vote share which, was further testimony to the surge (atowards which some remain sceptical).
After all, the Liberal Democrats were never expected to win in either Copeland or Stoke since these constituencies largely voted to leave the EU. The latter was an especially important litmus test since Zulfiqar Ali had previously stood in 2015, which goes to show that there has been a general increase in support for the Liberal Democrats as a potent voice even in areas which largely voted to leave. In Stoke, (where almost 70% voted Leave and where UKIP sought to challenge Labour), the Liberal Democrats experienced the greatest increase in vote share of any of the major parties:
Additionally, the Liverpool City Region mayoral election is due to occur in May, and is largely a race between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Although Labour have the best odds according to the bookies, the Liberal Democrats are second and remain the only real, politically feasible alternative. As such, it is very much a two-horse race.
Liverpool voted to remain in the EU referendum by 58.1%, so, at the very least, the Liberal Democrats will see yet another surge in vote share and possibly even a victory (depending on the campaign waged against Labour).
What’s more, after 200 tonnes of rubble fell upon Liverpool Lime Street station’s tracks, causing major travel disruptions, the Labour-controlled council might see further setbacks depending on what share of responsibility local residents place with them. The Liberal Democrat candidate, Carl Cashman is also the leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Knowsley Borough council where he ended Labour’s total control of all the seats in the borough.
In the run-up to 2020, many young people will become eligible to vote who were not previously eligible to vote in the Brexit referendum. Since young people mostly supported remaining within the European Union, this reinforces the Liberal Democrats’ strength of being the only party that wants a referendum on the Brexit deal.
Finally, although Tim Farron was initially relatively unknown, he has increasingly received more airtime in the national media and is bolstering the party’s credibility and presence, showing capability in leading the party from a trough to a proper recovery. Although he is more aligned to the centre-left of the party, this does not limit his appeal across the political spectrum: he gained the seat of Member of Parliament for Westmorland and Lonsdale from the Conservatives in 2005 with a slim majority of 0.5%, and has steadily increased his majority ever since (to 18.3% in 2015, a year in which the Liberal Democrats were nationally punished). As such, he is a tactical and strategic thinker capable of winning votes across the political spectrum but who also has the internal party support (unlike the situations within Labour and UKIP in particular but also more subtly within the Conservative party) required to continue to lead
As such, he is a tactical and strategic thinker capable of winning votes across the political spectrum but who also has the internal party support – unlike the situations within Labour and UKIP in particular but also, though more subtly, within the Conservative party – required to continue to lead the thriving Liberal Democrat resurgence.
UKIP’s Uncertain Future
After the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election (where current UKIP leader Paul Nuttall failed abysmally), UKIP’s future looks increasingly uncertain. Not only are they led by an ineffective leader who showed blatant disrespect and played politics with the emotional dynamite of the Hillsborough tragedy, the party seems to be disintegrating with no clear direction, dividing under the weight of a self-inflicted existential crisis and being dismissed by voters themselves: Stoke-on-Trent Central voted overwhelmingly to Leave and, whereas the Liberal Democrats won the Richmond Park by-election where voters voted overwhelmingly to Remain, suggesting that UKIP failed to capitalise on their position.
Essentially, UKIP looks set to gradually become consigned to the realms of irrelevance. Even if Nigel Farage were to return as their leader, he was unable to win the South Thanet constituency in the 2015 general election and, as such, he too is unlikely to bring UKIP any further along the hard road. UKIP’s zenith has passed.
Significant Changes Ahead for British Politics
This is all subject to change, however, as Britain is expected to trigger Article 50 by the end of March. iInflation is rising across the UK and without a compensating uptick in economic growth rates, people will experience a period of (mild) stagflation and this increased discontent will be expressed in a gradually intensified anti-incumbency factor that will work against the Conservative party.
Furthermore, and most importantly, the Conservatives are not expected to be particularly transparent as Brexit unravels under the pretence of ‘not wanting to reveal one’s hand’. Nevertheless, this provides ample opportunity for particular special interests (whether that be accountants, investment banks, particular goods exporters, importers, or otherwise) to be privileged over others and, when the extent of the damage done to particular industries, firms, and so on is gradually revealed, the Conservative party will lose support in the form of allies who would have otherwise fought their corner. The Conservative party will deliver the Brexit ‘egg’ safely but it will be in a non-transparent manner that will leave many feeling disempowered, excluded and discontented.
A corresponding increase in support can, therefore, be expected for other national political parties such as the Liberal Democrats who are already distinguished as the only political party seeking a referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal (which would be very attractive for those who are selectively excluded from the secretive Brexit process) as well as Labour – so long as Labour parliamentarians do not continuously rebel against the resounding democratic mandate of Jeremy Corbyn.
The Conservatives are steady for now, Labour seems to be in a precarious situation, the Liberal Democrats are surging, and the UKIP leadership is in a sorry state. But politics changes quickly. Presuming a general election in 2020, that presents just over three years for public sentiment to change – and even a week or two is a long time in politics.