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Britain: Strongman Brown Comes Unstuck

Alex Miller

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. Overall, Labour received just 24% of the national share of votes cast, behind the Liberal Democrats on 25%, and far behind the Conservatives, who polled 44%. Labour lost well over 300 council seats, while the Conservatives gained over 250. A repeat of this in a general election would see David Cameron’s Conservatives win a landslide majority in the House of Commons. In the London Mayoral election, Labour’s incumbent Ken Livingstone lost to Conservative candidate Boris Johnson, and the fascist British National Party gained its first seat on the Greater London Assembly.

Brown, who took over as Prime Minister in June 2007, initially enjoyed a brief honeymoon with the electorate, who were glad to see the back of the discredited warmonger Tony Blair. In the (northern) summer of 2007, Brown enjoyed good opinion poll ratings, following his apparently competent handling of a number of crises, including a foiled terrorist attack on Glasgow Airport, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease among cattle herds, and a devastating series of floods.

Buoyed by the positive opinion poll ratings, Brown overplayed his hand in September 2007, when he encouraged speculation that an early general election was to be called. He made his first speech at the Labour Party’s annual conference in front of a royal blue backdrop, adorned with the slogan “Strength to Change Britain”, and attempted to pander to fears about immigration among traditional Conservative voters with a number of populist, right-wing soundbites such as “British jobs for British workers”.

In the middle of the Conservative Party’s annual conference at the beginning of October, Brown visited Iraq, and announced that there was to be a significant reduction in the number of UK troops deployed in the occupation (this has since been withdrawn in the light of the Iraqi government’s inability to secure control of Basra).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 Conservative leader Cameron in which he dared Brown to call an election, the opinion polls started to suggest that a general election would be more closely fought. Brown called off the election, and pretended that he hadn’t done so because of declining opinion poll ratings.

Since the autumn of 2007, 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 credit squeeze that has afflicted global financial markets as a result of the US sub-prime mortgages crisis. 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 also 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 2008, 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.

Brown was willing to hand out £100 billion of taxpayers’ money to bail out fatcat bankers. Frank Field, the Labour MP who led the revolt on the abolition of the10p tax rate, told the April 25 New Worker that it would cost just £1 billion to compensate the low-paid workers and pensioners who stand to lose out, yet Brown had to be dragged kicking and screaming before he made his last-minute pledge to compensate them. 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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