Earlier this month, Britain went to the polls in local elections. So far, it’s been immune to the electoral turmoil that has affected Europe from Greece to France. But not this time. The British elections show that a simple way to create a political disaster is for the major parties to not keep their word.
Given the disappointment at how the British government has handled Brexit, you might have expected that many unhappy British voters would stay home.
You might also have expected the opposition Labour Party would gain votes at the expense of the governing Conservative Party. Yes, these were local elections, not a national one, but in Britain as elsewhere, local voting is partly a referendum on the national parties.
Both expectations were reasonable. And both were wrong. Turnout was down, but only by a percentage point. And far from gaining seats, Labour lost them, dropping 63 local council members (out of 2,270 seats). That’s far better than the Conservatives, who lost a whopping 1,269 councilors (out of 5,521 seats).
So if the two big parties lost, who won? The answer, in essence, was none of the above. The Greens took 185 seats, independent candidates took 285, and the Liberal Democrats took 676.
The Greens and the Liberal Democrats are political parties for people who don’t like politics and want their consciences clean and their answers simple.
The Liberal Democrats, in particular, used to be a major force, but after a spell in government from 2010-15 forced them into making compromises, their snow-pure supporters deserted them in droves. They did better this time not because they won back the public, but because everyone else did poorly.
There was one big winner on election night in Britain: spoiled ballots. In the pleasant North Yorkshire council of Malton & Norton, Labour was in second place with 19 percent of the vote. The winner? Spoiled ballots, with 39 percent.
And no, spoiled ballots aren’t common in Britain. In the last local election in Malton, only 1 percent of ballots were spoiled. Nor was this the result of confusing, Florida-style, butterfly ballots. Across the nation, thousands of voters wrote “None of the above. Deliver Brexit!” in the polling booth.
One party riding high in the British polls didn’t take part in the elections because it got organized too late: the Brexit Party. You have to think that most of those spoiled ballots would have gone to the Brexit Party if it’d had candidates.
This is how you get populism. I’m not happy about using that word, because in common parlance, it’s just a term of abuse. But something is clearly happening across Europe: Old parties on the left and the right are losing votes to new parties that are giving people what they want.
That’s called democracy. There is a lot to be said for traditional parties that balance being responsive with having a clear sense of their values and heritage. But if those traditional parties forget to be responsive, they lose votes. That’s populism.
The British government has failed to learn the lesson of Europe: if you don’t want populist parties to emerge, you have to respect the reasonable will of the people. The people aren’t intolerant, but they don’t want uncontrolled immigration. Nor do they like being governed by a European elite and the euro, a currency they don’t control. And British voters want Brexit.
The slogan that won the Brexit referendum in 2016 was “Take Back Control.” One way or another, that’s what the people will do. Britain, like Europe, shows that if the politicians don’t respond, the result will be populism. If today’s politicians won’t give the people what they want, someone else will.
This piece originally appeared in Newsday