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.

ToBy Melville/Reuters
'Bon courage': After a good start, Gordon Brown's tenure is in trouble.

When Gordon Brown met the three major US presidential candidates on a US trip in early April, it was billed as an important getting-to-know-you exercise for a prime minister keen to build a relationship with his most important international ally.

But ever since he got home, Mr. Brown has been scrambling to ensure that he remains in office long enough even to welcome the new president into the post.

A dismal succession of reversals, political and economic, have put Brown and his Labour Party on the defensive as they confront the first major test of the prime minister's popularity: Thursday's local elections. The New Labour project, started in 1997 under Tony Blair's leadership amid a wave of optimism, has never looked so close to eclipse.

Brown, who has carried the mantle since Blair's exit last June, has been deserted by his own members of parliament (MPs) on tax reform. Economic woes are deepening, his personal popularity has plummeted, the press has largely turned on him, and the opposition Conservatives are polling better than at any time since 1992.

"It has been ... a chastening few weeks for the prime minister," says John Grogan, a Labour MP. The best the party could hope for Thursday, he says, would be to come second behind the Conservatives with 30 percent of the vote nationally.

"A bad result would be coming third [with] 26 percent of the vote or [less]," he adds. Such an outcome would increase Labour's restlessness as it girds itself for a general election most likely to be called in 2010.

"There is no question that Labour will get hammered," predicts Paul Whiteley, a pse–phologist at Essex University. Pointing to the Conservatives' lead in the polls – 18 points in one survey – he says that for the first time in 16 years they would get an absolute majority in parliament if elections were held now. "You are talking now about really big leads – the kind that Tony Blair had over [predecessor] John Major."

George Eustice, an aide to Conservative leader David Cameron, says the party is quietly confident about the elections. "Gordon Brown has been found out as a tactical character who doesn't have vision for the country," he says. "People are seeing fresh thinking in the Conservatives and our agenda."

Brown had, most agree, a good start to his tenure, dealing with attempted terrorist attacks in London and Glasgow last summer. But when he made known last autumn that he was considering an early election, he dithered and ultimately desisted.

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.

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."

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