Britain: Strongman Brown comes unstuck

May 17, 2008

In the May 1 local council elections in England and Wales, the ruling Labour Party, led by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, suffered its worst election defeat in 40 years.

Labour received just 24% of the national share of votes cast, behind the Conservatives with 44% and the Liberal Democrats on 25%. Labour lost well over 300 council seats, while the Conservatives gained over 250. In the London Mayoral election, Labour's incumbent Ken Livingstone lost to Conservative candidate Boris Johnson, and the far-right British National Party gained its first seat on the Greater London Assembly.

Repeated in a general election, such a vote would see David Cameron's Conservatives win a landslide majority in the House of Commons.

Brown, who took over as PM last June, initially enjoyed a brief honeymoon with the electorate, who were glad to see the back of discredited warmonger Tony Blair. In mid-2007, Brown enjoyed good approval ratings following his apparently competent handling of a number of crises.

A buoyed Brown overplayed his hand in September, when he encouraged speculation that an early general election was to be called. Addressing the Labour Party's annual conference in front of a royal blue backdrop, adorned with the slogan "Strength to change Britain", he attempted to pander to fears about immigration among traditional Conservative voters with a number of populist, right-wing sound bites such as "British jobs for British workers".

In the middle of the Conservative Party's annual conference in October, Brown visited Iraq and announced plans for a significant reduction in the number of British troops deployed in the occupation (since dropped in the light of the Iraqi government's inability to secure control of Basra).

However, his attempt to wrong-foot the Conservatives came unstuck. Following an eloquent conference speech by Cameron, in which he dared Brown to call an election, the opinion polls started to suggest a closely fought contest. Brown called off election plans and pretended that he hadn't done so because of declining opinion poll ratings.

Since then, Brown's government has staggered from crisis to crisis. First, there was the first run on a British bank in over a century, as Northern Rock was forced to seek emergency assistance from the Bank of England as a result of the global credit squeeze.

Unable to find a suitable private bidder to take over Northern Rock, the government eventually temporarily nationalised the bank at an estimated cost of £50 billion to the taxpayer. The government announced last month that it is handing out a further £50 billion in taxpayers' money to the banking system in the light of problems caused by the global credit crunch.

It emerged towards the end of 2007 that some of the candidates in the Labour deputy leadership election were suspected of accepting donations in contravention of the laws governing election donations. In January, Brown's work and pensions' minister Peter Hain was forced to resign as a result.

The biggest problem for Brown, though, is a consequence of the last budget he presented as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 2007. At the end of his speech, Brown announced that the basic rate in income tax was to be cut from 22p in the pound to 20p in the pound, with effect from April 2008. At the same time, Brown announced the abolition of the 10p tax rate, a move that threatens an increase in tax for many of the poorest workers in the country.

This proved too much even for the normally supine Parliamentary Labour Party: 45 Labour MPs signed an amendment against the abolition of the 10p tax rate, and in order to avoid a humiliating defeat in the House of Commons vote on the current Finance Bill, Brown — who had initially vowed not to budge on the issue — was forced to pledge compensation for the low-income workers and pensioners adversely affected by the abolition of the 10p rate.

Given this, and the increasing unpopularity of New Labour's privatisation agenda in health, education, transport and elsewhere, the resounding defeat at the May 1 polls comes as little surprise. Since 1997, the Labour vote in national elections has declined by 4.5 million, and the membership of the party has fallen by more than 200,000.

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