Richard North, 04/05/2019  

We're getting to something of the same situation that we've seen with the referendum. The people have voted and now the pundits are moving in to decide what they meant by it all. Whatever was actually meant by it all, the pundits will know better and will decide for us what we did (some of us) last Thursday.

As it is, the central facts are clear enough. The Conservatives took a drubbing, losing 1,334 councillors and 44 councils. This was far worse than they even imagined and, in the normal scheme of things, a significant proportion of their losses might have gone to Labour. Instead, the main opposition party lost 82 councillors and six councils.

UKIP was also a loser, dropping 145 seats but, by contrast, the Lib Dems gained 703 seats. Independents grabbed 612 and the Green Party managed to pick up 194 seats. And had there been "none of the above" boxes, that vote might have swept the field, especially as we are getting reports that as many as 30,000 voters may have spoiled their papers.

Beyond that, everything else is speculation. The BBC, in its report helpfully tells us that the Lib-Dems and the Greens are "pro-EU", allowing an inference that this was an anti-Brexit protest vote, with the inference reinforced by the poor showing of Ukip.

But one can also recall that the Lib Dems in 2015 were suffering from the fall-out from being part of a coalition government and did particularly badly, losing 411 seats. Likely, they were going to recover some of their lost vote and they are naturally the party of protest, which possibly gave them an added edge.

As for the Greens, they have been high-profile with their "climate emergency" schtick, which may well have translated into votes. Ukip, in disarray, failed to field as many candidates as it did in 2015, so it was always going to do badly in these elections. The independents, being independents, are going to be hard to read, so there can be no specific Brexit inference, but it is interesting to note that in 2015 they lost 125 seats.

What comes over loud and clear this time, though – that which was evident the moment the results started coming in – is that the voters in substantial numbers are turning away from the two main parties. And, if we allow Brexit-related issues to be the cause, then the most obvious inference is that they are dissatisfied with the failure of the two parties to do a deal on the Withdrawal Agreement.

Mrs May certainly seems to have got the message, interpreting the election results as a message from voters to both main parties to "get on and deliver Brexit". She adds: "This is a difficult time for our party and these results are a symptom of that".

She may well be right on this as, when the results are translated into national shares of the vote, the Conservatives and Labour are level-pegging at 28 percent. This could suggest that Mr Corbyn has little to gain by holding out on a deal in the hope of precipitating a general election. Constructive ambiguity is not a vote-winner.

When one thus puts Corbyn's options together, his best interests might be served by reaching a deal with Mrs May as soon as possible. This would not only help to detoxify Brexit, but also avoid giving Farage's Brexit party a platform at the European elections. The very last thing he needs to do is give it a launch pad for its general election campaign.

For the rest, the pundits can come up with whatever explanations for the results that please them – as they always do. But if the strongest signal to emerge tells Corbyn that he has nothing to gain from dithering over Brexit, the net effect of these elections may be to expedite our withdrawal.

The crucial thing here is whether either side has sufficient control of their own MPs to be able to give effect to a deal. It is one thing the two principals agreeing between themselves to support the Withdrawal Agreement (against promises on the political declaration), but whether the rank and file will obey their whips is not something which is easy to predict.

Inevitably, the focus of late has been on the splits in the Tory party, but it is the case that Labour is also irreconcilably split, with plenty of the party's MPs potentially prepared to defy Corbyn if he takes them in a direction they don't like.

Yet, following Thursday's vote, there is a possibility that more than a few Labour MPs may change their views. The general thrust of the Brexit calculus is that a no-deal Brexit will be so destructive to the Conservative Party that the way will be opened for a Labour landslide along the lines of 1997.

But if both the main parties are going to take the flak, and there is going to be the added complication of the Brexit Party and Change UK, party interests may then be focused on getting Brexit out of the way as fast as possible, and reverting back to the two party dominance that has been a traditional feature of British politics.

The question then is whether we are seeing a long-term break-up of the de facto two-party system or whether – once Brexit is out of the way – politics will return to normal. This is a question that the big parties would like answered as much as ordinary voters. Certainly, at the moment, the resurgence of the Lib Dems looks more like traditional politics reasserting themselves.

Nevertheless, on occasions where we see big shifts in voting patterns, the ritual cries go up for reforms of the electoral system, with some sort of proportional representation being favoured. Others see salvation in the emergence of new parties, hoping that changes in allegiances will make the different.

In many respects, this is disappointingly superficial. Mostly, proposals represent trimming round the edges of the system, rather than accepting that it is so flawed that it needs fundamental revisions.

This notwithstanding, there is some merit in looking to the introduction of a "none of the above" (NOTA) system, where ballot papers give that as an option. The theory of that system is that, if NOTA gets more votes than the leading candidate, the election is declared void, requiring it to be re-run with different sets of candidates.

On top of this, I would like to see much more. Having an elected prime minister would be a good start, splitting the executive from the legislature (the first demand for The Harrogate Agenda). And elected prime ministers should be able to appoint their own ministers – subject to approval by parliament – drawn from outside the two Houses.

As for MPs, I would abolish the general election for parliamentary seats. Instead, I would have parliamentary constituencies share boundaries with local authorities, and have MPs paid from Council Tax. MPs would then submit annual reports and accounts, which would have to be approved by local votes. If MPs failed to get their approvals, they should be required to stand down and a by-election is called.

Necessarily, we will need to introduce a form of electronic voting. In the 21st Century, we should not be closing down schools for the day for people to stand in plywood booths and mark pieces of paper with pencils tied to bits of string. If the National Lottery can create a secure computer system for handling tickets, then there should be no great difficulty in computerising the election system, delivering results within hours of polls closing.

Of course, this would make referendums that much easier and quicker to set up - and much cheaper. We should not be spending £100 million or more every time we need to conduct a popular vote, much less be turfing children out of their schools.

For the moment, though, we just need to revel in the prospect that Brexit might just have come a little bit closer. This could be wishful thinking to an advanced degree but, for a few days at least, we should be allowed to live in hope.

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