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Differing fortunes for UK minor parties

Mike McCartney

9th May 2023

At the recent locals, the Greens did well. But Reform UK, not so much. How come?

As the BBC put it, Reform UK struggled at the ballot box last Thursday. According to the BBC website:

"Reform UK - formerly the Brexit Party - has made little headway in England's local elections.

The party, founded in 2018 with Nigel Farage's backing, fielded hundreds of candidates, mainly in areas that had voted heavily to leave the EU in 2016.

But with all but three results now declared, Reform has won just six seats, averaging just 6% of the vote in the wards where it stood.

In the last equivalent poll in 2019, UKIP averaged 19% in wards it fought."

Clearly the inspiring speeches like the one on the video below at the party's spring rally didn't have the positive effect intended.

Oh dear

So while it was the worst of times for Reform, it was the best of times for the Greens. As predicted in a previous Politics Blog post about the role of minor parties, the Greens took control of a local council for the first time. According to the Guardian:

"The Greens have won majority control of a council for the first time in the UK amid a triumphant set of local election results, with the party gaining close to 240 seats by Friday night, well above even internal expectations.

As well as taking 24 seats on the 34-member Mid Suffolk council, doubling their previous tally, the Greens highlighted their threat to the Conservatives in rural and suburban areas by becoming the biggest party on East Hertfordshire council."

So, when looking at the role of third parties we can see that they provide a vehicle for supporters at the so called fringes of politics. Reform UK, an offshoot of an anti-EU party has clearly had its time after Brexit. Meanwhile, for voters who have concerns about the environment clearly view voting Green at local elections as a means of offering their support for policies that help tackle climate change. But would this translate into support at national level? Well, probably not. Climate change, according to behavioural economist Dan Ariely, is one of those areas where long term policies with little immediate impact are not really attractive. Ariely said: “If you said, I want to create a problem that people don’t care about you would probably come up with global warming.” So promising at a Westminster election to spend billions on green energy policies that have little immediate impact isn't really going to have much salience compared to which party looks to have the best policy on the economy (at the minute, that mainly has to do with getting inflation down). But voters want and can see policy change at a local level. Policies like low traffic neighbourhoods, pledging to improve the safety of cycling and walking as alternatives to car use are attractive and immediate. This chimes with two trends. First, that young people are falling out of love with the car. See this article from the Economist, for example. And the Greens did particularly well among graduates. This makes sense. They are more likely to be cosmopolitan, and when they do have to go to work (i.e. office) will be more likely to prefer alternatives to commuting by car.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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