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Labour defeat a blow for Britain's Gordon Brown

The prime minister faces intense pressure for change after his party lost in a once-safe Scottish constituency.

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent / July 26, 2008



LONDON

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown faced calls Friday for a radical change of direction, including quitting Iraq and returning to more traditional left-wing Labour policies, after he suffered his fourth local election disaster in three months, losing one of the Labour Party's safest seats in a byelection.

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Mr. Brown's candidate was trounced in a constituency in Glasgow, Scotland, which, with its working-class credentials and lifelong Labour supporters should have been easy enough to retain even for an unpopular governing party.

Instead, the Scottish National Party (SNP) beat the Labour candidate by 365 votes. The swing away from Labour was such that, if replicated at a general election, Brown himself would lose his seat and barely 20 Labour Members of Parliament (MP) would be left in Parliament. Comparisons are already being made with Margaret Thatcher, ousted by her own acolytes once they thought she had lost the support of the country, and John Major, who was hammered in a 1997 general election after suffering several heavy byelection defeats.

The victorious SNP candidate, John Mason, called his victory a "political earthquake" and said that "the tremors are being felt all the way to Westminster."

Brown himself responded by saying he was sorry about the loss, but was "getting on with the job."

"My full focus is on taking people through these difficult times," he simply stated.

But MPs expressed shock at the defeat, and some are calling for a leadership challenge. "We need a new start, and that can only come from a debate around the leadership," said one MP, Graham Stringer.

Conservative Party leader David Cameron urged Brown to call a general election. "I think we need change in this country, and that's how change should come about," he said.

MP Ian Gibson says the defeat could galvanize a move against Brown in the autumn, and argues that he had to "do something policywise" before then.

"There's lot to be done, care for the elderly, get out of Iraq, make sure the Darzi report [on healthcare reform] is implemented properly," Dr. Gibson says. "There's lots that can be done, just a lack of determination to do it."

He adds there would be no move against the leader until after the summer, but that the election debacle "might galvanize some activity" at Labour's showpiece fall conference.

It was the fourth such political earthquake in 12 weeks after Labour was trounced in local elections, lost a once-safe seat three weeks later, and then performed terribly in another byelection in which it trailed in fifth spot.

Glasgow East should have been different. It was Labour's 25th safest seat, held by a majority of 13,000 votes in the last general election. "The expectation was that we would win, so it was a shock that we didn't," said Labour MP John Grogan. He said the summer break would provide a cooling-off period, but added: "there'll have to be a major government reshuffle."

With the economy creaking and households feeling the pain of the credit crunch, Mr. Grogan said Brown might have to "do something totemic to share the burden," like taxing windfall profits on energy companies to use the money for the poor.

Unions, meanwhile, are circling with a list of more than 100 demands, most of which want Labour to return to its social-justice roots. Free school meals, better public services, state ownership – many of the demands require large dollops of state cash at a time when the public coffers are emptier than at any time for more than a decade.

"Governments in Scotland and Wales are winning praise and votes for adopting 'old Labour' measures like stopping NHS [National Health Service] privatization and scrapping tuition fees," wrote Tony Woodley, joint general secretary of the Unite union, in a commentary. "What is there to stop a decent social democratic government announcing a major program of council [public] house building? A massive windfall tax on the megaprofits Shell and BP would be a vote-winner, and the right thing to do."

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