Local elections: Main parties hit by Brexit backlash in polls

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The Conservatives and Labour have faced a backlash at the ballot box over Brexit, with smaller parties and independents taking seats countrywide.

Results are coming in after local elections in England and Northern Ireland, and national politics seems to have been a deciding factor for voters.

Polls took place for 248 English councils, six mayors and all 11 councils in Northern Ireland.

Both parties admitted they faced tough nights thanks to the Brexit deadlock.

MPs have yet to agree on a deal for leaving the European Union, and as a result, the deadline of Brexit has been pushed back from 29 March to 31 October.

And while local elections give voters the chance to choose the decision-makers who affect their communities, the national issue looms large on the doorstep.

Results for 108 English councils are expected before 06:00, with the other 140 results expected throughout Friday.

The Northern Irish results will take longer to come in. No local elections are taking place in Scotland and Wales.

  • LIVE: Local election results and reaction as it happens
  • Election results in maps

BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg says results so far suggest both of the two main parties are being punished for their handling of Brexit, with smaller parties – the Liberal Democrats and Green Party – and independents benefitting from their losses.

The Conservatives have lost more than 300 seats so far, with some predicting that could rise to at least 800 in the end. The Lib Dems have already gained more than 200 – but it is still too early to assess the overall picture.

North/south divide

Polling expert Prof Sir John Curtice agreed it will be the smaller parties celebrating on Friday.

“One of the major features of the 2017 general election was that, between them, the Conservatives and Labour dominated the election, winning over 80% of votes – the biggest combined share since 1970,” he said.

“We might be saying tonight those days are over. It looks as though the key message from the voters to the Conservatives and Labour is ‘a plague on both of your houses’, as they find themselves losing both votes and seats on an extensive basis.”

Prof Curtice said there was a north/south divide emerging in the losses too, with the Conservatives shedding more seats in the South – especially in areas that voted Remain – and Labour losing more in the North.

Brexit Minister James Cleverly said he hoped local councillors would be judged on their individual performance, but told BBC News: “It is unrealistic for me to pretend that with nine years in government and Brexit as a backdrop, [it will] be anything other than a tough night for [the Conservative Party].”

Sir Graham Brady, who chairs the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, said Brexit had been a “massive frustration” for voters and affected the number of Tory supporters coming out.

He told the BBC: “We need to be more obviously competent as a government and we need to make progress – crucially on the central issue of Brexit.”

Key developments so far:

  • The Conservatives have lost control of 12 councils – including Peterborough,Basildon, and St Albans. Labour has lost control of three – Hartlepool, Bolsover and Wirral
  • Labour has also lost its mayoral post in Middlesbrough to an independent
  • The Conservatives have won two councils – Walsall and North East Lincolnshire – both of which had no party with overall control before
  • The Liberal Democrats have won five councils – Winchester, North Norfolk, Hinckley and Bosworth, Cotswold and Bath and North East Somerset
  • Labour has one won council – Trafford – a former Conservative stronghold
  • Where independent candidates have been standing, they have won on average 25% of the vote – and independents have taken control of two councils – Ashfield and Kesteven
  • The Green Party has gained 34 councillors so far, while UKIP has lost 33
  • Turnout is averaging just one or two points below the last two local elections, reversing predictions of a major drop off in voters

Labour’s shadow international development secretary Barry Gardiner said his party may have struggled because of its effort to please both Remain and Leave voters.

“There are two competing principles here and we are trying to hold them in tension,” he told the BBC. “We are trying to say there is a way to reconcile them [but] if a party is seen to be speaking with two voices, it’s very difficult to communicate the policy.”

But Labour MP Ruth Smeeth said voters just don’t believe the party will deliver Brexit.

She told the BBC that spoiled ballot papers had messages like “we don’t trust you”, and support for other parties showed it was “anyone but the Tories or us”.

She added: “My frustration is that we seem to have abandoned [voters]. No matter how hard we are working locally, we need clear messaging from the top and playing around just isn’t working.”

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Lib Dem MP Wera Hobhouse described the results for her party so far as “fantastic”.

“Voters have given their verdict on Brexit to the two main parties,” she said. “The European elections are around the corner and after this exceptional night, we will do very well in the European elections because voters will come to the Liberal Democrats as a true Remain party.

“It is our big night. We have made the biggest gains since 2003. The Liberal Democrats are back.”

The Green Party’s co-leader, Sian Berry, said she was excited by the breakthroughs her members were making onto new councils.

She told the BBC: “[We have been] dealing with the problems that led to Brexit which were these big councils dominated by one party taking people for granted and not listening to them, while central government is ignoring whole swathes of the country.

“People are swinging to other parties because of the Brexit mess but let’s not forget it is also because of the problems that led to Brexit as well.”

And UKIP’s Mike Hookem said his party was taking votes from both the main parties too, adding: “We’ve had two years of turmoil. We’re back on the rise again.”

This is the biggest set of local elections in England’s four-year electoral cycle, with more than 8,400 seats being contested.

A further 462 seats are up for grabs in Northern Ireland.

We know from the geographic pattern of where the overnight announcements are, and where the counts that come back on Friday are, that Labour was always more likely to have a rough night and the Tories a slightly better one, before it flips at some point in the morning.

All we can say at this stage is Labour is not doing as well as they would have hoped to – an opposition party would hope to take lots and lots of seats from a government with the sort of troubles this one has. The Tories, conversely, are doing less badly than they feared, but that could well change.

What we can be pretty sure we will be able to say by the end of Friday is that both of main parties are suffering here.

We are not seeing a situation where one of them is dramatically managing to escape from the fallout of the Brexit mess.

Of the 248 elections in England, 168 have been district councils which are in charge of setting and collecting council tax, bin collections, local planning and council housing.

There were also elections taking place for 47 unitary authorities and 33 metropolitan boroughs which look after education, public transport, policing and fire services, as well as all the services of district councils.

In Northern Ireland, councils are responsible for services including local planning and licensing, waste collection and enforcing safety regulations to do with food, workplaces and the environment.

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