British Labour is in trouble. One political reading of the local council results of 1 May seems irrefutable: Gordon Brown’s government is gradually fading into oblivion. The elections delivered gains to David Cameron’s conservatives across Wales and England. 159 councils were contested, with some 4,023 seats.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s message prior to the election was desperate. He assured readers of the Daily Mirror that ‘Labour councillors’ had the ‘concerns and the hopes of hard-working families’ at heart. Far better to stick with Labour, a party against taking ‘risks with the economy’ and tampering with ‘vital services’.
That desperation spilled over in the contest for City Hall in London. The Guardian newspaper rolled out its arsenal on the day of the election to compel voters in London not to vote for the Conservative candidate Boris Johnson. It reminded readers how the bumbling, error-prone Etonian once told Swedish UNICEF workers and their black driver in Uganda that he wished to ‘go and look at some more piccaninnies’. Zoe Williams’s column was a strident warning: ‘Be afraid. Be very afraid.’ What would be the consequences of ‘this bigoted, lying Old Etonian buffoon’ getting his hands on ‘our diverse and liberal capital’?
Less afraid than disgusted was the prolific and often-incendiary columnist for the Independent, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, who labelled the two front-runners, Johnson and Labour incumbent Ken Livingstone, as ‘so flawed it shames democracy itself’. In a battle where evil had become the metric measure, Ken was preferable.
Then, the verdict from a host of actors, writers and activists. Actor Alan Rickman felt that Boris running London was much like putting an incompetent lunatic in charge of an asylum. Another actor, Arabella Weir, would consider immolation before the horses of the Ascot races. Writer Bonnie Greer had fled New York to avoid Borisian-styled madness. London, she feared, would be handed over to the ‘Kensington and Chelsea gulag and the Bullingdon Ascendancy.’ Fellow author Will Self also had it in for the Chelsea ‘denizens’, who would not so much lionize Boris as cuddle him as the teddy bear mascot of ‘4×4’ driving.
The pre-election advice from the Guardian then: ‘If you passionately want to Keep Boris out, 1st Choice Ken, 2nd Choice Anyone except Boris.’
Electoral advice from the Guardian has a tendency to go astray (remember its disastrous attempt to convince Americans not to vote for George Bush in 2004). Johnson was duly elected, getting a bruising 53.2 percent to Livingstone’s 46.8 percent. Labour’s losses across the boroughs were the worst seen since the 1960s, a 24 percent decline in the overall share of the vote. The Conservatives gained 144 seats, their best performance since 1992; Labour lost 145.
Municipal elections are not necessarily representative of national sentiment. Labour suffered stinging defeats in 2004, its councillors victims of an unpopular war. That did not prevent a Blair victory in 2006. Voters often prove discriminating in their punishment.
What will worry Labour strategists is the revitalised nature of the Tory challenge. Unlike ‘BoJo’, they are looking less like performers in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta and more like government contenders. Conservative gains in the North such as the bellwether borough of Bury within Greater Manchester will sting, as will losses in Hartlepool and Pendle in Lancashire. Crushing losses in the Midlands and the South will dismay the party.
Brown has become the victim of minutiae, intrigued by such matters as the size of gaming machines and other White Hall frivolities. Bureaucracy enchants him, and it’s not working. The General Secretary of the Fabian Society Sunder Katwala has accused him of ‘neurotic under-confidence.’
He has bungled over abolition of the 10 pence starting rate of income tax, something he initiated in his final budget as Chancellor. Compensation measures for workers and income earners on the lower scale were woeful. Both had been denied the working tax credit. Nor was the government ‘able to help the 60 to 64-year-olds who don’t get pensioner’s tax allowance.’ He has also presided over a government that did what a few years ago would have been unthinkable: embrace bank nationalisation.
Brown and his party only have two years to remedy the catastrophe that is fast enveloping them. They, more than anybody else, have reason to be afraid. Eric Pickles, local government spokesman for the Conservatives, is eager: ‘The ship is heading towards the rocks.’ The same may be said of London.
BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.