Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 June 2019

British voters give Conservatives and Labour an election slap

Local council vote provides a platform for backlash over Brexit

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, center, arrives Friday May 3, 2019 to celebrate the election result for Trafford Council with Labour Party activists at the Waterside Arts Centre, Manchester, England, following the voting in Thursday's English council elections. (Peter Byrne/PA via AP)
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, center, arrives Friday May 3, 2019 to celebrate the election result for Trafford Council with Labour Party activists at the Waterside Arts Centre, Manchester, England, following the voting in Thursday's English council elections. (Peter Byrne/PA via AP)

Britain's major parties suffered significant reverses in local elections around England as voters sought to deliver a protest against the political deadlock that saw the country miss the deadline for Brexit at the end of March.

The results of Thursday's elections displayed discontent over how Britain's 2016 vote to leave the European Union has been handled. Voters have split beyond traditional party lines in an indication of the damage Brexit has done to the two big parties.

The ruling Conservative Party lost more than 1,300 seats, suffering in part from a strong performance at the last tranche of voting in 2015 but Labour also fell back, losing 81. The lost councillors resulted in 44 lost councils for the Tories and six for Labour.

The main beneficiary of the swing against the two main parties - which are in talks to try to break the impasse in the UK parliament over Brexit - was the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, which gained more than 650. The smaller Green Party and independents also gained ground.

Activists said the Liberal Democrats' clear message that Britain needs a second referendum to break the parliamentary impasse over the terms of Britain's planned departure from the EU had helped turn the tide.

Conservative Party chairman Brandon Lewis said it had been “a tough night” while Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, said the results were not as good as hoped, adding Brexit was partly to blame.

Mr Corbyn said he was "very sorry" that Labour lost control of Hartlepool, Wirral and Bolsover councils, but vowed to "win them back".

"It just seems voters, period, 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 said.

Looking forward to the forthcoming European parliament elections due to be held later in the month, Mr Curtice said the breakdown of two-party dominance would be even more marked. Polls have show the upstart Brexit Party, led by the campaigner Nigel Farage, is set to gain most votes in that nationwide vote.

"I suspect that on 23 May we will discover that there are more than three significant players and we may see the most fragmented British electorate since the advent of mass British democracy," he said.

In the first reaction from Downing St to the results, a spokesman said Theresa May would resume talks with Labour over passing a Brexit agreement early next week. Mrs May opened talks with Labour a month ago after her deal to leave the European Union was rejected three times in parliament, but despite both sides saying they are constructive, there is little expectation of breakthrough next week.

"It's important that we get it right," the spokeswoman said of the talks, adding that Mrs May understood the frustration of some in Britain over the delay to Brexit.

Priti Patel, a former Conservative cabinet minister, said the message from the campaign trail was that was time for Mrs May to quit.

"People have very categorically said that she is part of the problem,” Ms Patel said. “We need change. I just don’t think we can continue like this. Many of my constituents have said this to me: ‘We need change, we need a change of leadership.’ Perhaps the time has now come for that.”

On the Labour side, there were calls for the party to end its ambiguity over the push to leave the EU.

Bridget Phillipson, a Sunderland MP, said the swing to pro-Remain parties away from Labour was marked in a city that is seen as a bastion of the push to leave.

“Too often places that voted for Brexit back in 2016 like Sunderland get caricatured by the media as if everyone voted Leave. But the majority of Labour voters now want a People’s Vote on Brexit and would vote to stay in the EU given the chance,’’ she said.

“I fear Labour’s position has been too hesitant and lacking in clarity over the past few months, depressing support among our voters at a time when they expect strength and leadership from my party rather than fudge.”

Updated: May 4, 2019 12:14 AM

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