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As the dust settles after a marathon series of local and regional elections in all four corners of the UK, Open Europe’s Jayson Probin looks at how this latest test of public opinion could impact the EU referendum campaign.
On Thursday 5th May a plethora of UK elections were held on everything from control over regional Governments to Police and Crime Commissioner. With the final results having trickled through over the weekend, we now have a clear picture of the UK’s political landscape as we head towards the EU referendum. Whilst ostensibly these elections were purely about domestic politics, three interesting trends have emerged that could have an impact on the campaigns as they heads towards June 23rd.
Perhaps the most remarkable result of the election was just how little actually changed. As the graphs below show (via wikipedia and BBC), the political map of the UK remains virtually unchanged since the last time these elections took place with Labour dominating in Wales and Northern England, the Conservatives retaining their strongholds in the South and the SNP reigning supreme in Scotland.
2012 Elections Vs 2016 Elections
Only in London, where Labour’s Sadiq Khan thumped the Tories Zac Goldsmith to win back control of City Hall, was there a major change in power. This high degree of continuity (both in terms of these specific regions as well as in terms of mid-term elections) is made all the more striking given that historically these elections have seen hundreds of local councillors and dozens of regional assembly seats change hands. Furthermore, unlike at national elections, the electoral system used should have made it easier for insurgent powers to break through if voters were unhappy with the establishment. This implies that voters, at least for the moment, have a strong status quo bias and little appetite for change. If this trend holds out till June 23rd, it could suggest that the Leave campaign will have a hard time convincing voters to break from what they already know.
The results also confirm the shoddy state the opposition Labour party finds itself in. Whilst not a complete wipe-out, by any historical standards these results were terrible for Labour. Labour lost seats in all partsof the UK outside London, it sunk to third in Scotland and Jeremy Corbyn has become the first Leader of the Opposition since 1985 to loose seats during local elections. This is hardly the results of a party on course to win a general election in 2020.
The lack of a credible electoral threat from Labour could embolden Tory Brexiters. With the elections now out of the way, and there being no sign (at least not yet) that the increasingly visceral public disagreements within the cabinet have damaged the Conservatives electoral prospects, Tory Brexiters will likely be even more outspoken in their criticism of David Cameron. Attacks on Government policy on everything from immigration to public services will likely become more frequent and intense. This could further complicate the eventual reunification of the party after the referendum, particularly if Remain wins.
Events in Scotland could also embolden Brexiters. The Scottish National Party (SNP) was returned to power but crucially lost its majority in parliament. Though the success of the Scottish Greens means there will still be a pro-independence majority in the Parliament, the barriers to second independence referendum have increased substantially following the election. The Scottish Greens have a much higher threshold for triggering a second referendum than the SNP do; requiring huge public support in the region of one million people signing a petition before they would consider a second referendum. Furthermore, the Unionist vote seems to have coalesced around the charismatic Ruth Davidson of the Scottish Conservatives who leaped frogged Labour to finish second. With Unionism now having found a strong and popular voice, the political debate over a second referendum will be that much harder for the SNP.
Though this by no means completely rules out the possibility of a second Scottish independence referendum, it does significantly reduce its likelihood. This could help ease concerns about the potential political fallout from Brexit and make pro-Union, Eurosceptic voters more relaxed about voting to leave.
The net result of these elections on the Referendum campaign is hard to tell and there are ways it could cut both ways. Remain is likely to view voters endorsement of the status quo as an indication of people being risk adverse, and so will likely double down on the economic and security risk posed by Brexit. Leave campaigners, especially Tory cabinet ministers, will feel emboldened to be more outspoken with the threats of electoral defeat at the hands of Labour and a second Scottish independence referendum now largely removed. This points to an increasing acrimonious and loud debate, probably what the voters least wanted.