It is hard to imagine that Gordon Brown will stay as Prime Minister until the next UK General Election after the staggering defeat of Labour in the Glasgow East by-election last Thursday.
Despite the political trouble that the Government is in, most pundits (including me) thought that Labour would probably just hang on in Glasgow East. Instead, the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) John Mason triumphed on an almighty swing of 22.54 per cent, overturning a margin of more than 13,000 votes to hold the seat by a slim buffer of 365.
By-election results are perennially prone to overinterpretation, but the potential implications of Labour’s East Glasgow nadir are huge.
Coming on the back of a string of electoral debacles for Labour, talk has quickly turned to possible leadership ultimatums, the identification of stalking horses and the potential of various challengers. On the weekend, the British media was aflame with conjecture about who might tap the PM on the shoulder. Nobody, it seems, thinks the Prime Minister is secure. The Times reported a two month deadline imposed on Brown. The Guardian quoted an anonymous former Labour Minister whose grim assessment was that, led by Brown, the party had become "unelectable everywhere, and that is untenable".
It is extraordinary that it has come to this, less than a year after a confident Brown was considering a snap election to secure a mandate in his own right after inheriting the top job from Tony Blair. Back then, it was Tory Leader David Cameron’s leadership that was in some doubt. Brown’s decision not to go to the polls last autumn must now rank as one of the greatest unforced political miscalculations in modern British political history. Since then, a variety of further political and policy errors – combined with the onset of economic woes – have created deep strife for the UK Government.
But it is the way that Labour is perceived to have responded to a changing economic climate that was the source of the disaster in Glasgow East. As the poorest sections of UK society have to do it increasingly tough, Brown has failed to cut through on what should be Labour’s strongest turf. The Labour Government is being eaten alive by an electorate that is moving to the left rather than the right on economic matters.
Bizarrely, on some issues David Cameron has even been able to attack the Labour Government from the left. The Tory leader did, however, revert to political type with his harsh words on a recent visit to Glasgow East.
As the economic winds blow colder, people are in the mood for government that is more inclined to intervene. Immediately after the result in Glasgow East was announced, the left Compass grouping within Labour called for just such an approach, to be signalled by a raft of fresh policies, led by a windfall tax on fuel companies. Yet there are no guarantees, even if UK Labour does engage in some remaking and heads for the social democratic high ground. In Andrew Rawnsley’s assessment in The Observer, "Gordon Brown is a leader the voters no longer want to have a conversation with". John Howard could tell the British PM how difficult it is if the electorate has simply stopped listening to you.
In contrast to Brown, the SNP are cock-a-hoop, with leader Alex Salmond declaring that no Scottish seat is safe for Labour. The primary aim of the SNP is "to take Scotland forward to independence". One by-election result falls far short of that aim, but the win hasn’t done the cause of tartan autonomy any harm.
Meanwhile, a hemisphere away, perhaps Prime Minister Kevin Rudd might pause for thought, because Glasgow East could be a premonition of future Australian elections. In power for less than a year, the ALP should learn from New Labour’s mistakes and ensure that it does not neglect the party’s base.
In Australia – as in the UK – Labor needs to appeal to a coalition of electoral interests to hold power. But climate change and the prevailing economic conditions mean that community sentiment is shifting to the left. Voters recognise that these are challenges that can only be met by the kind of stronger government action associated with social democracy. It’s the new political reality to which Brown – or his successor – must adapt in very short order.
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