In Depth

The UK political parties at risk of collapse

Could the Brexit Party’s triumph at the European elections trigger the decline of Britain’s two-party system?

As the fallout from the European elections continues commentators believe the results could have huge ramifications for the future of British politics.

Across the country as a whole, it was a good night for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, the Lib Dems and the Greens. But the results were as much about the night’s losers as the winners. Labour and the Conservatives suffered heavy losses, while newly formed Change UK failed to win any seats and UKIP “haemorrhaged support to The Brexit Party”, says the BBC.

As a result, “the British political landscape now looks unrecognisable”, says the Daily Mail’s Dominic Sandbrook.

“What we are seeing for the first time is a challenge to the two main parties – not from one end of the spectrum or the other, but from both ends at the same time,” the BBC’s elections guru John Curtice added. “We’ve not seen that before. This is a severe warning to them that their traditional dominance of British politics cannot be taken for granted.”

So are the UK’s political parties heading for electoral collapse?

Conservatives

The Tories finished in fifth place nationwide with just 9% of the poll – their worst national result since 1832. Even more astonishingly for the party of government, the Tories failed to finish top in a single one of the 300-plus local authority areas across the UK.

The results are “a reminder that the party cannot afford to go to the country until it has delivered Brexit”, says The Spectator’s James Forsyth. If it does, the Brexit party “will stand and make it impossible for the Tories to have any chance of winning and, possibly, even threaten its very survival”, he writes.

Even with a hard-Brexiteer at the helm to neutralise the threat of Farage, it’s not clear that the Conservatives would return to government as they would face “defections from Conservative Remainers, might lose a vote of confidence to a ‘Remain alliance’ of Labour MPs, Lib Dems and the Scottish Nationalists, and would alienate thousands of affluent, middle-class voters”, says the Mail’s Sandbrook.

But The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee adds: “Conservatism as the British default is so deep-dyed in the national psyche it’s hard to think this is the end.” 

Labour

The picture was only a little better for the Labour Party, which “really ought to be making big gains this year given it’s been in opposition for more than nine years”, says Politico’s Jack Blanchard.

Deputy leader Tom Watson told the BBC his party lost “many hundreds of thousands” of potential votes because of its weak Brexit stance. He argued that confusion over holding a referendum on any deal had led to “electoral catastrophe” after Labour’s share of the vote fell to 14%.

Indeed it’s clear that “Labour’s strategic ambiguity on Brexit – which worked so well for it in the 2017 general election – is now hurting the party”, says the Spectator’s Forsyth. There appears to be a clear shift at the top of the party to a position of backing another referendum despite the clear reticence of the party’s northern MPs and its leader Jeremy Corbyn.

One such MP, Gloria De Piero, writes in The Guardian that backing Remain now would wreck Labour. We “won’t win another general election if we don’t respect a part of our electoral coalition that is also needed. Electorally, most of the marginal seats we need to win are in heavily leave-voting areas”, she writes.

But the strength of Corbyn and De Piero’s position is waning. Until now, “opponents of a new vote could argue that despite the clamour for a second referendum from Remainers in the country, they would ultimately stop short of voting for other parties”, says the New Statesman’s Patrick Maguire. But “it's now clear, that those voters have somewhere else to go. The balance of risks has shifted”, he writes.

Change UK

The other big story of the elections is the surge in suppport for the Lib Dems, who, only a couple of months ago, “were supposed to have been rendered obsolete by the new Change UK party”, notes The Times’s Hugo Rifkind.

The drive for a new centrist party over the past three years has been based on the pretty accurate idea that the ‘none-of-the-above’ Lib Dems represent a pointless void where the centre ought to be”, says Rifkind. And yet, “offered Chuka Umunna, Heidi Allen and the rest, centrist voters seem to have felt this pointless void to be a considerably better option”, he quips.

Now Allen has called for a single centrist party after her colleague, Umunna, admitted “mistakes” in the election campaign and suggested a pact to end rivalries in individual constituencies.

Asked if she would go “one step further” than Umunna, she replied: “I would like us to be in the same vehicle.”

When asked, on BBC Radio 5 Live, if she meant the same party, the former Conservative said: “Yeah, probably, I don’t know. I don’t know what the format will be, but will we be singing from the same hymn sheet? I would hope as a collective, let’s call us a collective, somewhere in the middle with other like-minded colleagues.”

Whereas on the party’s foundation, Change UK “might have envisaged being a senior partner in a merger, that now looks ridiculously ambitious”, Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, told The London Evening Standard.

“The Lib Dems have taken on momentum which will be very difficult for Change UK to grab back,” he added.

UKIP

A near-complete collapse in support for UKIP, in which all its MEPs lost their seats, has “cast doubts over whether the party will continue as a viable political entity”, says The Guardian. The bad night came on the back of another series of poor results in the local elections where the party lost 80% of its seats.

Leader Gerard Batten, who will step down this summer, had attracted praise from some within the party for choosing a number of alt-right Youtube personalities to stand as candidates. “The arrival of the YouTubers – Paul Joseph Watson, Sargon of Akkad and Count Dankula – was hailed as a great victory”, says The Spectator’s Robert Jackman. In reality, though, UKIP’s YouTube alliance was “unable to put forward anything resembling a political platform”, he writes.

“Having bet big on the culture war candidates, UKIP is now plodding into an embarrassing eighth-place finish,” Jackman concludes.

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