Britain’s Two Main Parties Punished Over Brexit in Local Elections

LONDON (Reuters) —
A polling station sign is seen on the fence of a school in Hale, Britain, Thursday. (Reuters/Phil Noble)

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party were both punished in a local election by English voters who blame them for the deadlock over Brexit, partial results showed on Friday.

With almost half of English local council vote results declared, the Conservative Party lost 433 councilors and the Labour Party had lost 81 councilors, according to a BBC tally.

The results are another display of how Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union has split the nation beyond traditional party lines, leaving Labour and the Conservatives deeply divided.

But the smaller Liberal Democrats gained, making up losses they suffered in 2015 when voters rejected the party after the coalition government was established with the Conservatives. Activists said the Liberal Democrats’ clear message that Britain needs a second referendum to break the Brexit impasse had helped turn the tide.

“It just seems voters, period, [are] saying: ‘A plague on both your houses,'” said John Curtice, Britain’s leading polling expert.

“We knew that voters were unhappy with the way that the Conservatives had handled Brexit but looks as though they are also unhappy with Labour’s response to the government’s position on Brexit,” he told the BBC.

The Liberal Democrats won 301 councilors, independent candidates won 215 council seats and Greens, which also backs a second referendum, gained 38, the partial results showed.

Labour sources said their party had little to fear from the results so far, saying it was always going to be a “tough” battle in councils that traditionally favor the Conservatives.

Tough was also the word the Conservatives used to describe the local elections, with some pinning the blame for the party’s bad showing on an impasse in Parliament, which has rejected May’s Brexit deal three times.

British politicians and polling experts said the results showed that both major parties were being punished for the chaos surrounding Britain’s delayed exit from the EU and that they were losing their traditional dominance.

Nearly three years since the United Kingdom voted 52% vs. 48% to leave the European Union, and there is still no agreement among British politicians about when, how or even if the divorce should take place.

Britain was due to have left the EU on March 29, though May has been unable to get her divorce deal approved by Parliament so she has turned to the Labour Party, led by socialist Jeremy Corbyn, to try to court his support.

It is still unclear how the deadlock might be broken, though there has been speculation that May might call a general election, a prospect that Curtice said could end in another hung Parliament.

With most of the local councils traditionally loyal to the Conservatives, the governing party was expected to see big losses – something that could fuel calls for May to step down.

“If the Conservative Party doesn’t mend its ways pretty quickly the Conservative Party is going to be toast, and it’s quite obvious that the Conservative Party has got to deliver Brexit and that is a Brexit that really is Brexit,” said Conservative lawmaker Bernard Jenkin.

More than 8,000 seats on English councils – administrative bodies responsible for day-to-day decisions on local policy from education to waste management – are up for grabs. Full results are due later on Friday.

There are also some local elections taking place in Northern Ireland on Thursday but none in Wales and Scotland, which operate under a different schedule.

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