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September 20, 2003

A Sign of Things to Come?

By Byron LaMasters

The Labour Party suffered a defeat in one of its strongholds in a special election in Great Britain to fill an open seat. Labour is hurting from its unpopular support of President Bush, while the Liberal Democrats, the only major British party to oppose the war in Iraq have benefited:

Senior Labour figures blamed a backlash against the war in Iraq and the aftermath of the conflict yesterday for the party's humiliating defeat in the Brent East by-election.

MPs urged Tony Blair to change his policies and style of government, with some warning that the party could lose power at the next general election despite its majority of 163 in the House of Commons.

A senior Labour source told The Independent: "There was a combination of factors but they all relate to Iraq - the war itself, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the death of David Kelly and the Hutton inquiry. We have had six months of background noise on Iraq. Without that, we would almost certainly have held the seat."

The Liberal Democrats were jubilant after overturning a 13,047 majority in one of Labour's safest seats with a 29 per cent swing. There was gloom for the Tories, whose embarrassing third place revived speculation about Iain Duncan Smith's future as party leader.

Labour's preliminary inquest into the party's first by-election defeat for 15 years, which will be reported to its national executive committee on Tuesday, will say that Iraq was the decisive factor.

A Labour official said that Iraq became a symbol on the doorstep in Brent for people who wanted to "give the Government a kicking". It was a particularly important issue for Muslims and AB professional workers, he said. Iraq had also undermined people's trust in the Prime Minister, another factor in Brent. A Blair aide said: "Iraq and the Hutton inquiry crowded out our message on, and the reality of, public-service reforms. People think the Government is not concentrating on what they put it there to do." And Ian McCartney, the Labour chairman, admitted that Iraq had caused "difficulties" for the party, which needed to re-focus on domestic issues. "The backdrop of the controversy surrounding the Iraqi conflict, in its many forms, made this the most difficult by-election Labour has fought in the last 20 years," he said.

Glenda Jackson, MP for Highgate and Hampstead, said: "There is a severe breakdown in trust in the Government rooted in issues such as the Iraq war, the death of Dr Kelly." In the public's mind, the Government was associated almost exclusively with Mr Blair.

Frank Field, a former minister for welfare reform, said: "We are in deep trouble and for the first time we see the prospect that we might actually lose the election on a record low turnout."


Sarah Teather, who becomes Britain's youngest MP at 29, hailed her 1,118-vote victory over the Labour MEP Robert Evans as a "vindication" of Charles Kennedy's opposition to the Iraq war.

Mr Kennedy said: "We're now on course, steadily and with perseverance, at least in principle, to overtake the Conservatives as a political party in opposition. They are the big, big losers in this contest without any shadow of doubt."

Labour has a lot of work to do to repair the damage that they've created among their supporters. But if this by-election is any indication, the Labour base is very alienated, which will be a big problem for Blair and his party next election.

Posted by Byron LaMasters at September 20, 2003 12:29 PM | TrackBack


Bi-elections almost always produce losses for the government in Britain, and they often provide a third party victory. This is due to the circus nature of a bi-election when everyone's resources can be concentrated in one constituency. Bi-elections are an opportunity to dramatize a criticism of the government. In all likelyhood the British electorate will come back home in the general election since there really is no where else for them to go. A much better indicator, however, is council elections. If Labour loose a large number of council seats in a national trend, that could be a problem for the Labour government. In 1996 the Conservatives lost a massive number of councils, including many traditionally Conservative city and borough councils on the Home Counties, which was the real portent for the general election of 1997.

Posted by: Dave Wilkins at September 21, 2003 01:32 AM


Posted by: news- at August 6, 2004 10:26 AM
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