As Britain votes, Gordon Brown faces first big test
The prime minister's Labour Party, the dominant force in British politics for over a decade, is trailing the Conservatives by as much as 18 percent ahead of Thursday's local elections.
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Since then, ironically, it has been the economy, on which Brown built his reputation as a chancellor for 10 years, that has turned on the prime minister. A collapsed national bank (Northern Rock) and a proliferation of home foreclosures demonstrate that the credit crisis has firmly taken hold in Britain.Skip to next paragraph
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Falling house prices and surging food and fuel costs are creating a general well of dissatisfaction. Last week, teachers peeved about pay launched their first strike in more than 20 years. Further public sector action is expected. Another private sector strike at a refinery in Scotland which crimped gasoline supplies re–inforced the impression of a workforce starting to feel the pinch.
But Brown has compounded the agony by trying to shore up deteriorating public finances with a tax reform that prompted a spectacular Labour revolt. A move to abolish a 10 percent tax rate that would have hit low-income workers – a key base for the party – generated such dissent by Labour MPs that Brown was forced into major concessions. Wednesday the prime minister admitted "mistakes" in the saga, which Professor Whiteley says might persuade core Labour voters to stay home Thursday.
"The error over the abolition of the 10 percent rate of taxation, which will seriously affect poor people, was a really bad blow to Labour's core constituency who feel betrayed," he says. "Gordon Brown made his reputation claiming economic competence – a safe pair of hands. You can't claim credit when times are good and then say it's not my problem when times are bad." .
Brown also faces a brewing crisis over terrorism and security. Plans to increase the pretrial detention period for terror suspects from 28 days to 42 days face a hostile passage through parliament, with dozens of Labour MPs skeptical that it will improve national security.
A truly terrible result on Thursday, when more than 4,000 seats on 159 local councils are up for grabs, could trigger renewed Labour agonizing over whether Brown is the best man to lead them into the next general election.
"One of the aims of replacing Tony Blair with Gordon Brown was to improve the chance of winning elections," says John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University in Scotland. "Defeat will suggest that this hasn't been the case."
But he adds that there are few alternatives to Brown now. "That is both the strength and weakness of Gordon Brown's hand," Professor Curtice says.
Intriguing side issues also remain to be resolved in Thursday's vote, among them whether Ken Livingstone will win a third term as London mayor or succumb to the animated challenge of conservative Boris Johnson. Also interesting is whether the far-right British National Party (BNP), which has been trying to soften its image and appeal beyond its core racist base, can get a candidate elected to the London Assembly.
"People are bundling up in their minds issues of terrorism and immigration, even though they're separate issues," says Whiteley. "Both major parties have messed up on this, so you will see some people supporting BNP."