The local elections show a divided Britain: Labour and the Tories are trapped in a stalemate

In a new era of hung politics, both parties are struggling to revive their past hegemony. 

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Britain has entered a new era of polarised politics. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour are able to revive the hegemony they once enjoyed. The 2018 local elections served as confirmation of this reality.

It was not, as some will write, a “bad night” for Labour  merely a mixed one. At the time of writing, the party had improved on its positive performance in 2014 (the last time these areas were fought), gaining 30 seats and one council (Plymouth). In Trafford, Labour deprived the Tories of their flagship northern authority. And Labour further advanced in London, winning seats in Conservative-held Wandsworth (seven) and Westminster (four). The marked exception was Barnet, which the Tories gained and where Labour was punished for its lax handling of anti-Semitism. 

This was not, by some distance, the outcome that Labour wanted and that the Tories feared. Jeremy Corbyn’s party aspired to seize Conservative citadels  an always prodigious aim (Labour last held Wandsworth in 1978 and has never held Westminster). Shrewd expectation management by the Tories means their opponents’ advance can now be defined as “failure”.

It is the governing party, however, who have the most cause for cheer. After multiple political scandals and nearly a decade of austerity, they have nevertheless gained seats (16 at the time of writing). Ukip’s post-Leave collapse continues to swell the Tories’ support: they won Basildon and Peterborough, while Labour lost Derby and Nuneaton. A right that once appeared irretrievably divided has reunited around the Conservatives. Tory rebels, who anticipated this date as a moment to oust Theresa May, will be forced to retreat. 

But there were warning signs for the Conservatives. May’s embrace of “hard Brexit” has thrilled conservatives but dismayed liberals (in London most of all). In Richmond, the seat Zac Goldsmith won back in 2017, the Tories lost control to the resurgent Lib Dems. Vince Cable’s party, which has long pointed to its gains in local by-elections, performed well enough to give critics pause for thought.

The UK’s political divisions predate the Brexit vote. Not since 2005 has any party won a comfortable parliamentary majority. But the EU referendum and the culture war it unleashed has made Britain yet more divided. 

The Conservatives once hoped  and believed that Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership would condemn Labour to electoral annihilation. Instead, the party advanced. Last night’s results suggest that rather being the exception, the 2017 election is the new normal. (A Sky News national projection by pollster Michael Thrasher mirrored last year's results: the Tories on 305 seats, Labour on 261,  the SNP on 35 and the Liberal Democrats on 26.)

On both a local and a national level, Labour is not making the gains an opposition needs to be confident of winning power. But nor are the Conservatives close to recovering their squandered majority. Until either party constructs an unbeatable electoral coalition, Britain’s strange new era of hung politics will endure.

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

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