A Labour Breakthrough?

Britain’s Labour Party made big gains yesterday in the local government elections and today party activists are celebrating what they see as a breakthrough for leader Ed Milliband.

And there is much to celebrate for them. Not all results are in from the elections for 128 English councils, 32 Scottish councils and 21 Welsh councils but it looks like Labour will capture more than 700 council seats from the Conservatives and wind up with 39 percent of the national vote.

More promising for Labour, the party has won control also of councils in the south and east of the country away from their traditional heartlands, places like Exeter, Southampton, Plymouth, Thurrock, Harlow, Norwich and Great Yarmouth.

But is this the breakthrough? It is often a mistake in British politics to project from mid-term local elections and assume the same result can be repeated for the national parliamentary contest.

Both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair suffered mid-term local election setbacks as prime ministers before going on to win subsequent general elections. In both cases the defeats of the governing parties were severe.

In 1981, two years after losing office to Thatcher, Labour gained 988 seats, with the Tories losing 1,193. In 1999, William Hague’s Tories gained 1,348 seats and Tony Blair’s Labour Party lost 1,150 seats.

In the national contest turnout is higher as are the stakes. Midterm elections are treated by many voters as an opportunity to grumble (1). By a big margin voters still believe the coalition government’s spending cuts are necessary (by 54 percent to 27 percent according to one recent opinion poll).  But they are allowed to express their dislike of the medicine.

The fight now for Labour and the Conservatives is surely going to be over Liberal Democrat defectors. Which side they swing to could well determine the next general election.

1. Re-reading this posting I think “grumble” is too weak a word for how many Brits feel about their plight now. “Shriek”, I think in hindsight, would have been a more accurate verb.

Gorgeous George Is Back

Strong stuff as ever in the Daily Mail today from Max Hastings, extrapolating from George Galloway’s upset victory in the Bradford West by-election to argue that the win reflects not just local Muslim sentiment and dislike for Ed Milliband’s Labour Party but a collapse in trust between voters and the political class.

The YouGov poll from months ago that he cites is indeed alarming. Just 24 per cent of respondents believed MPs are capable of “debating issues of public concern in a sensible and considered way.”  And only 15 per cent saw Parliament as “representing the interests and wishes of people like me.” Barely one-tenth of voters (12 per cent) thought politicians capable of understanding their own daily lives.



The Brown Character Issue

The UK Observer has gone big today on Andrew Rawnsley’s book End of the Party with front-page and inside coverage. But the lead strikes me as a tad misplaced. Both the Observer and the author have focused on the British premier’s tantrums and anger management problems, but the more damaging material surely is buried: that Brown and Downing Street underestimated how bad the economic crisis would be, are overwhelmed and highly dysfunctional, delay decisions and can’t even keep up with correspondence.

Labour Party aides are pushing out the line that they have never seen the Prime Minister lose his temper. Home Secretary Alan Johnson on the BBC’s Politics Show made much of this, saying he found him to be soft-spoken. The other line of defence has been to argue snidely that they understand the author has a book to sell. Others argue that indeed Brown is an emotional and passionate man, committed to principle and country.

Brown wouldn’t be the first national leader to have temper issues. Bill Clinton could throw his weight around with subordinates and staff — one Washington DC news channel once famously caught the then U.S. President screaming at a cowering aide during a visit to a local school. Surely, British voters won’t be shocked to learn that the British Premier can’t keep hold of his temper — anyway that is old news.

Far more telling in the book is the detail Rawnsley throws up on Brown’s indecisiveness and on the overall inability of Downing Street to push through the work in efficient fashion.

Obviously it is disturbing that the head of the UK civil service, according to Rawnsley, had to reprimand Brown for his abusive behaviour towards staff at all levels, from typists and phone operators to senior aides. And the temper issue, as Rawnsley points out, raises relevant character questions about how Brown handles crisis.

But it is the examples of the dysfunctional nature of Brown’s Downing Street and the Prime Minister’s obliviousness to the depth and extent of the looming economic crisis that strikes me as more worrying — and far more damaging for the Labour Party as the election looms.

On the former point, Rawnsley has this to say in an extract buried inside the Observer’s coverage: “Even the basic housekeeping wasn’t being done. Letters…went unanswered.” Phones would also not be picked up. “There were cases of foreign embassies not being told whether a visiting leader was going to be granted a meeting with the Prime Minister and dates being muddled up…Routine decisions took months to process. Cabinet ministers and their senior officials began to speak with extraordinary vehemence about what one called ‘the sheer dysfunctionality ‘ of Number 10. On the account of one civil servant: ‘However chaotic it looked from the outside, it was a billion times worse inside.’”

Of course, one of Brown’s supposed strengths has been his understanding of economics. But according to End of the Party, it was Chancellor Alistair Darling who had a better grasp of the approaching financial catastrophe. According to Rawnsley, after Darling had issued a warning in a media interview in 2008 that the economic crisis would be the worst for 60 years, Brown flew into a rage and told the Chancellor that the financial turmoil “will be over in six months”.