It's just as well there are still four years until the next (scheduled) general election here in the UK, because if one was held next Thursday you'd need to be Nostradamus to predict the outcome. The main political parties are still raking over the coals of the local elections, held at the end of April across England, in search of patterns, messages and meaning—and all will have been cheered by the results, so long as they don't scrutinize the results too closely.
Take the Labour Party. Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, who emerged from back-bench obscurity to become Leader in 2015, claim the results were a victory for his policies, personality and professionalism. Labour gained 77 councilors and retains control of 74 councils; this despite what Corbyn supporters insist is an overwhelmingly hostile press and charges of anti-Semitism which stubbornly refuse to go away.
For Corbyn's opponents within Labour, the fact the party failed to take any new councils or inflict lasting damage on a Conservative government widely derided as lacking direction, vision or leadership was proof that we have reached "Peak Corbyn." Jeremy's nice-old-granddad-from-the- allotment schtick won't win him any new recruits; he might bedazzle idealistic teens born after the Berlin Wall came down but suburban parents with high mortgages are more interested in job security and the cost of living than virtue-signaling about Palestine.
Strangely, the Conservatives are in an almost identical position: led by a strangely aloof, awkward leader, unpopular beyond her immediate supporters, having to enforce Brexit despite being opposed to it (though in Corbyn's case, as I have said here before, it's even weirder: he is almost certainly pro-Brexit on a personal level, but has to pretend he's against it). Theresa May's critics are saying the same thing as Corbyn's: how can this great party have fared so badly against a chaotic, scandal-riven mob led by an old-fashioned, out-of-touch ideologue?
Politics in the UK have always been tribal. For decades, the Tories were the natural party of business, of property ownership, of law and order; Labour were for the working classes, the manual worker, and yet also for the idealist intellectual. Then came Margaret Thatcher's brand of revolutionary capitalism, the smashing of unions, de-industrialization, extended rights of property ownership to occupants of public housing; New Labour under Tony Blair went even further, "liberalizing" the economy, borrowing from the private sector to prop up the NHS and education by way of ruinous PFI schemes. Labour became the party of business but forgot the poor, dismissing concerns about unlimited migration as "racist" whilst at the same time invading Iraq alongside the US.
Labour was always seen as pro-feminist, anti-racist: yet the Tories have given us two female prime ministers and when Sajid Javid replaced Amber Rudd to become Britain's first Muslim Home Secretary last week, Labour activists referred to him as a "coconut" and an "Uncle Tom."
Now, both the Tories and Labour are evenly split between extremists and moderates; mainstream Labour supporters probably have as much or more in common with "wet" Tories as they do with their own extremist fringe, and there are even calls for a new, pro-Europe centrist party to be established, a big tent for refugees from the extremes of Left and Right.
This sounds like a good idea, in theory: after all, the vote to leave the EU was a close one (52-48 per cent), meaning there are potentially millions of disgruntled, pro-Europe floating voters out there who would probably vote for anyone with the courage to demand another Referendum.
Except there already IS a centrist party: the Lib Dems, who shared power with the Tories as part of the Coalition (2010-15) and were grievously wounded by the experience. Now, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Lib Dems are mounting a comeback: they gained four councils last Thursday, adding 75 councilors to what was admittedly a low base. The Lib Dems are unique in openly admitting they believe Brexit is a mistake and are demanding another Referendum be held to save the country from economic suicide.
The trouble is, there are a number of flaws to this standpoint. First, proponents of a second referendum have yet to explain what would happen if this time Remain won, but the margin was equally narrow: surely then there would be calls for yet another referendum? Where and when would it all stop? Second, although too early to know for certain, the indications are that Brexit won't lead to the ruin of the country; the UK after all has survived far worse tribulations in its long, turbulent history than the prospect of import duty on brie.
Finally, and perhaps most important: the vast majority of the country are now absolutely bored to death by Brexit and just want to get on with it - and on with their lives. This might explain why UKIP, which for a time transformed British politics, culminating in the vote to Leave in 2016 saw its vote completely collapse at the end of April, to the point it now has just three councilors nationwide. For most voters the continued existence of UKIP is a bit like the continued existence of the Rolling Stones: baffling, and yet incredibly dull.
This dire state of affairs is worrying for anyone who still believes passionately in politics, in policies, in trying to make the world a better place. Both major parties are led by weak, yet dangerous, leaders who are perhaps inflicting as much damage on their own side as on that of the other. It's hard to see any series of events that would result in either Corbyn or May being ejected before 2022: which means four more years of dangerous drift, of internecine bickering, then an election whose only positive will be the final, fatal removal from power of one or the other, and perhaps a fresh start. As Henry Kissinger said of the Iran-Iraq conflict: it's a pity both sides can't lose. Because at the moment, the only losers are the British electorate.
Mark Liam Piggott
Political Journalist (London )