Commentary / World

U.K. local elections reveal a disunited kingdom

by Tina Burrett

Local and regional elections earlier this month reveal a growing state of political disunion across the United Kingdom. Devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the late 1990s pulled Britain’s peripheries away from its English core. But even in England politics is becoming more fractious, with campaigning for the June 23 referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union deepening schisms.

The left-right dichotomy that defined British politics in the 20th century does not fit the conditions of the current millennium. The very composition of the country is in contention. In this month’s regional elections, political parties committed to leaving the U.K. but remaining within the EU won strong support in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Independence is becoming the key cleavage in Scottish politics. On May 5, the pro-independence Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) took 63 of the 129 seats in the Edinburgh Parliament. The Labour Party, once the dominant force in Scottish politics, came in third with a mere 24 seats, down 13 from the last election in 2011.

This follows Labour’s routing in Scotland in last year’s general election, when it dropped from 41 to just one seat north of the border. Labour’s joint pro-union campaign with Prime Minister David Cameron’s Conservatives during Scotland’s September 2014 independence referendum cost the party the confidence of left-leaning Scots.

The SNP has hastened Labour’s demise by stealing its social democratic clothes. The SNP’s charismatic leader Nicola Sturgeon has successfully combined calls for independence with a narrative of natural Scottish progressivism that conflicts with England’s conservative inclination. Ironically, the Conservative Party are benefiting from Sturgeon’s strategy. “Tory” became a four letter word in Scotland in the 1980s, when the Thatcher governments destroyed most of the nation’s industrial base. But in this month’s elections, the once toxic Tories came in second behind the SNP, winning 31 seats — although Labour actually won more votes than the Conservatives in the constituency portion of the ballot.

The Tories’ resurgence is in part due to its leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, who cannily called on her working-class background to engage voters beyond the party’s base. The Tories are also benefiting from positioning themselves as the home of pro-union voters—a perception Sturgeon’s rhetoric is helping to cement.

In England, the Conservatives fared less well. Overall, the party lost 48 local councilors, leaving it with a total of 842. Labour did better, winning 1,326 seats, a loss of just 18 since last year. But Labour has few reasons to be cheerful. Opposition parties that want to become governing parties need to do better than this in mid-term elections. The Tories’ losses should have been much worse following the party’s bitter Euro-divisions, budget U-turns and the revelations about “dodgy” David Cameron’s personal finances in the Panama Papers.

The election of Sadiq Khan as London mayor is a bright spot for Labour. The son of an immigrant bus driver from Pakistan, Khan became a human rights lawyer, then a member of Parliament. Khan successfully parlayed his personal story into his aspirations for Britain’s capital. Khan beat his Conservative rival Zac Goldsmith by 57 percent to 43 percent in a second round run-off ballot, becoming the first Muslim mayor of a Western capital city. Tory tactics aimed at stoking racial prejudices by falsely implying Khan’s links to Islamic extremists backfired, confirming only that the Conservatives deserve their mantle as “the nasty party.” As Britain’s most powerful directly elected politician, the race for London mayor is about personality as well as politics. Khan’s victory belongs as much to him as to Labour.

Outside London, in the south of England, Labour remains weak. In the context of the upcoming EU referendum, this is not just a problem for Labour, but for the country at large.

The referendum campaign is in danger of becoming a proxy war for leadership of the Conservative Party. The most prominent faces of the Remain and Leave campaigns are Conservatives. Inevitably, Cameron is the pivotal figure in the Remain camp, while his Conservative colleague, the outgoing London Mayor Boris Johnson, is the central character in the Leave campaign.

Cameron has made it clear than regardless of the referendum result, he will not seek a third term as prime minister in 2020. According to The Economist magazine’s May 9 poll-of-polls, with 51 percent of Conservative voters intending to vote to leave the EU compared to 36 percent supporting staying in, Johnson is positioning himself as Cameron’s successor.

This Tory sideshow may suppress turnout in the referendum among Labour voters, 61 percent of whom favor EU membership. A vote to remain in Europe could be mistaken as a vote for Cameron. The Remain campaign will not win on June 23 unless it can mobilize Labour voters. Outside London and Wales — where Labour hung on to 29 of its 30 seats in the Welsh Assembly — the party lacks the capacity to perform this crucial role.

Voting intentions for the EU referendum reveal a growing geographic political divide mirrored in this month’s local election results. Support for continued EU membership is strongest in London, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In the London mayoral race, the anti-EU UKIP candidate Peter Whittle received just 3.6 percent of votes. Londoners’ support for the EU is not surprising. London benefits most from the human and financial capital attracted to Britain by virtue of its EU membership.

In Scotland, the case for independence rests largely on anchoring the nation to Europe’s supranational institutions. After 300 years as part of the U.K. governing largely by London, Scots are used to sharing sovereignty.

The Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland is predicated on the British and Irish governments’ common membership of the EU. Northern Ireland has also been a significant recipient of EU regional development funds.

Listening to the rhetoric of the Remain and Leave campaigns, one would think they were living in different countries. For the Remain side, Britain is a fully globalized nation, dependent on EU membership to stave off economic ruin and global irrelevance. If the Leave camp are to be believed, it is ties to Europe that hold Britain back from reaching its global potential.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, political divisions within the U.K. will continue to widen. The bitterness of the debate over whether to split with the EU only makes an eventual split within the U.K. more likely.

Tina Burrett is an associate professor of political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.