“The Liberal Democrats won a huge haul of more than 200 net seat gains.”
This is how The Guardian in Britain described the local elections held on May 5. The long-established newspaper is sympathetic editorially to the Liberal Democrats (and predecessor Liberal Party). With nearly all the results in, the Liberal Democrats’ impressive local gains include 20 councilors in Scotland and 11 in Wales.
The United Kingdom (Britain plus Northern Ireland) has a complex tapestry of local authorities. These elections included London borough councils, local authorities in Scotland and Wales, and the assembly in Northern Ireland.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party suffered a major defeat, losing approximately one-quarter of the seats contested. Ongoing unpleasant scandal regarding members of Mr. Johnson’s government breaking their own pandemic rules to attend parties has provoked public outrage. The Labour Party held steady, with no significant net gains.
Northern Ireland also has witnessed significant shifts. Sinn Fein, the nationalist party that seeks a break from Britain and unification with Ireland, topped the voting for the first time. This means further separatist pressure on the British government.
U.K. voters have made the month of May this year particularly important in political and electoral terms.
The government of Prime Minister Johnson, confirmed in power with an enormous House of Commons majority in the general election of December 2019, now faces serious challenges to political survival.
In the 19th century, the popular Victorian musical team of Gilbert and Sullivan could declare every baby was born “a little Liberal or else a little Conservative.” In the 20th century, the working class emerged to achieve the vote, and massive numbers meant the Labour Party replaced the Liberals.
Nonetheless, two-party dominance remained.
The last quarter of the 20th century witnessed the rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties, revival of the Liberals, and continued growth of support for the successor Liberal Democrats. Single-issue parties also profited. The Brexit and Green parties focused respectively on exiting the European Union and promoting environmental concerns.
Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May succeeded David Cameron in 2016, after the surprise defeat of his referendum aimed at remaining in the European Union. She negotiated complex withdrawal accords with the Eurocrats in Brussels, only to face rejection three times in Parliament, including in her own party.
Finally, Good Citizen May was replaced by Bombastic Boris Johnson, who rushed through general leave-Europe legislation, postponing details. The eventual cost includes renewed violence in Northern Ireland, but Britain left the EU.
On May 2, 2019, local government elections in England and Northern Ireland saw losses for both Conservatives and Labour. Liberal Democrats and Greens made notable gains. In 2020, the pandemic postponed local elections. In 2021, the Scottish National Party made significant gains, along with the Greens and Liberal Democrats.
Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University in Scotland is insightful and influential. His analysis for the BBC notes the Liberal Democrats’ success.
Significant numbers of people back the Liberal Democrats precisely because they are not part of the traditional Conservative/Labour establishment. Many such partisans viewed joining Conservatives in coalition government 2010-2015 as a form of treason, and the Liberal Democrats consequently suffered severe reversals at the polls.
Today as in the past, Britain combines intense partisanship with stability. Decades ago, Professor Samuel H. Beer provided durable analysis. His approach accommodates the decline of two-party dominance.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland looms.
To learn more, see Samuel H. Beer’s “British Politics in the Collectivist Age”
Arthur I. Cyr is author of “After the Cold War – American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia” (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He is also the director of the Clausen Center at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisc., and a Clausen Distinguished Professor. He welcomes questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.