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European elections expose polarized British public

Support for Labour and the Conservatives has collapsed, with the Brexit Party and pro-Remain parties coming out on top. So where does this leave the UK? Samira Shackle reports from London.

Two months after Britain was supposed to leave the European Union, with Parliament still mired in deadlock about Brexit, voters in the European elections have delivered damning results for the two main parties.

The Brexit Party, a new movement established by Nigel Farage, won 28 seats. The Liberal Democrats, who fought on a hard Remain platform, came second with 15 seats. Labour got 10 seats. The Greens were in fourth place with seven seats, while the Conservatives — the current party of government — were in fifth place, with just three seats.

"It was shocking for the Labour Party but worse for the Conservative Party," said Matthew Cole, lecturer in history at Birmingham University. "For the ruling party to get less than 10% of the vote is unprecedented in modern times. This election has given us a sense of the way public opinion is polarizing."

The Brexit Party stood on a single issue platform: advocating a no deal Brexit on World Trade Organisation rules [this would mean tariffs on certain goods, particularly food and agriculture, and much higher barriers to trade compared to the EU single market — the ed.]. While the swing to the Brexit Party is at least in part accounted for by the collapse in support for UKIP, Farage's previous outfit, which dropped to just 3.3% of the vote — the support they gained is clear. 

Read moreEU elections: Wake-up call for centrists amid euroskepticism, climate inaction

"The Brexit Party has obviously done tremendously well to build and mobilize a politically effective grassroots movement and donor base in such a short space of time, and while the progressive parties such as the Liberal Democrats have also performed well, it is impossible to overlook the fact that the Remain side continues to be considerably more divided," said Sophia Gaston, Visiting Research Fellow at the London School of Economics and Political Science. "A singular party, united around a simple message, is always going to have the edge on a diverse and often dysfunctional coalition of separate parties."

Poles apart

The result shows clear disillusionment with the two main parties. "I've supported the Conservatives in the last few elections, but frankly it's been dispiriting to watch them paralyzed while the country flounders," said Andrew Harris, an accountant from Yorkshire who voted to leave in 2016. "I just want someone to get on with it now."

The Conservatives are gearing up for a leadership contest after Theresa May announced she would step down on June 7. "It will now be very difficult for any Conservative leadership contender to urge caution about leaving at the end of October," said Cole. "Talk about extending the period of time or modifying Theresa May's agreement will be difficult, as others within the party can point to the European election results, which shows support for a very clear type of Brexit."

Read moreOpinion: Brexit sinks Theresa May's UK prime ministership

However, it is also worth noting the swell of support for anti-Brexit parties. In terms of the overall vote share, the vote for hard Brexit parties — the Brexit Party and UKIP — amounted to 34.9%, while the vote for pro-Remain parties totaled 41.5%.

Infografik EU-Wahl, Vorläufiges amtl. Endergebnis in Großbritannien EN

This has led many Labour supporters to call for a clearer position on Brexit. The party's strategy has thus far been to try to appease all sides. "I've been a Labour voter all my life, but this time I couldn't do it," said Raza Ahmed, a social worker from London who voted to remain. "I wanted to hear someone sticking up for the significant chunk of people who do not want to pursue this madness, and that was only coming from the smaller parties."

Several senior Labour figures have called for the party to formally back a second referendum.

"I think the first thing that we're going to see is a clarification of Labour's position on Brexit," said Camino Mortera-Martinez, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform. "They cannot sit on the fence any longer. They might finally become the party of remain and the second referendum."

Snap election?

Part of the reason that Brexit has been delayed is that the Conservatives lack a majority in Parliament. With the prospect of a new Conservative leader backing a hard Brexit position — Boris Johnson, the current front-runner, has said that Britain "will leave the EU on October 31, deal or no deal"— some analysts suggest that an election will be necessary to break the deadlock. "Three years on from the referendum result, we can see that the country has not moved on — roughly the same amount of people want to leave as to remain, and those who want to leave cannot agree on how it should be done. The only way to actually break the script is to have a general election," said Mortera-Martinez.

However, the poor results for the two main political parties may have made that less likely. "This outcome will underscore the risk the Conservatives face of going to the country, and for Labour, it compels a much clearer position on Brexit. We remain in a parliamentary deadlock on Brexit, and without a seismic democratic event — an election, or a referendum, or a bold new direction from the next Tory leader — it is difficult to see how the country can move forward."

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