European elections pound Britain's Brown
The prime minister is fighting to win over rebels in his Labour Party after it suffered its worst results in a century.
London — Gordon Brown's hopes of clinging to power as Britain's prime minister have been dealt a potentially fatal blow after the ruling Labour Party suffered its worst results in 100 years following elections for the European Parliament and local councils.
The defeat came as many right-of-center and even some fringe parties made gains across Europe. In Britain, the key driver of election results appears to be the damaging revelations about the abuse of expenses by many members of parliament from all three major parties. The scandal has sparked widespread public anger and drove many voters into the arms of smaller political parties.
Mr. Brown was facing a showdown Monday with rebels in his own party, which finished with less then 16 percent of votes for the parliament in Brussels. That put Labour behind not just the resurgent center-right Conservative Party but also the smaller United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which advocates Britain's withdrawal from the European Union.
The extreme right British National Party (BNP) made its first national breakthrough by winning two of Britain's European seats, both in the north of England. The gains for the anti-immigrant party, which has a whites-only membership policy, were made by its leader and a veteran far-right activist who cut his political teeth as a member of an organization founded on Adolf Hitler's birthday.
Time for Brown to go?
Labour supporters waking up the morning after the European election were candid about the tumbling support for their party, which has ruled Britain since 1994.
"It's absolutely awful, it's a disaster for Labour," says Gavin Hayes, general secretary of Compass, a Labour pressure group that lobbies for the party to return to more left-of-center ground.
"But fundamentally there is absolutely no point in changing our leader unless the party changes direction," he argues, calling for a reconnection with Labour's traditional working-class base.
Brown is already fighting for his political life following a wave of resignations last week by ministers. The latest departure came Monday when junior minister Jane Kennedy said she had been sacked after refusing to pledge loyalty to him.
The prime minister was expected to attempt to win over restless Labour MPs at a meeting Monday by making a number of concessions on sensitive issues, such as granting an inquiry into Britain's involvement in the Iraq war and backing down on plans to privatize the postal system.
Labour's chief whip, Nick Brown, has urged rebels in the party to decide after the meeting whether to try to oust Gordon Brown or to pledge loyalty. The rebels, many of whom were admirers of Brown's predecessor and rival, Tony Blair, need the backing of 71 of Labour's 350 MPs to trigger a leadership contest, which would likely take place in about three weeks.
Jonathan Tonge, a professor of politics at the University of Liverpool and an expert on Labour's electoral fortunes, says rank-and-file Labour MPs have been broadly supportive of Brown in comparison to more senior figures, so their reaction to the election results would be crucial.
"[Monday's] results could not have been worse, leaving Labour clinging on to the lifeboat that Conservatives only moderately improved on their vote share," he says.
"But if Brown does go, and I think it is more likely that he will resign rather than being forced out in a leadership contest, the reality is that the party would enjoy only a temporary bounce in the polls which a new leader brings. That would not last, given the economic problems we face," he continues.
Expenses-gate has 'driven voter anger'
In the other parties, the Conservatives won the largest proportion of votes with 29 percent. The result prompted its young leader, David Cameron, to claim that the party is on course to win the general election that will be held next year. The UKIP placed second, with 17 percent. Britain's third largest party, the Liberal Democrats, finished fourth.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage hailed his party's victory: "People voted for us because they agree that we should be friendly with Europe, that we should trade, but not that we should have our laws made there," he told the BBC.
However, most political analysts characterized the party's strong showing as largely due to voter anger over the expenses scandal.
"In my lifetime there has been never been an election so dominated by one issue to the of extent of the expenses issue," says Mick Temple, a political scientist at the University of Staffordshire. "It has driven voter anger, which has been directed mainly at Labour as the governing party rather than the Conservatives, even though both have been tainted."
"What we have also seen is a growth in substate nationalism, and what may be a new threat to the unity of the United Kingdom," he adds, pointing to the emergence of UKIP, the BNP, and success in local elections by another fringe party, the English Democrats, which wants England to have its own regional parliament similar to those in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Far right may not hold seats for long
He cautions against overestimating the breakthrough by the BNP, adding that it had succeeded largely because the Labour Party vote had collapsed. BNP's leader, Nick Griffin, won his seat despite getting fewer votes than in 2004, he points out.
"The fact now is that when the BNP are able to have more access to mainstream television and media outlets, most people will find that they are actually quite poor performers and that what they have to say is repulsive," he says.