Local U.K. Election May Signal Trouble for Brown

A local election to fill a vacant seat in Parliament could spell more bad news for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. The outcome is being closely watched for an indication of his declining popularity.

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A local election in Britain today could give Prime Minister Gordon Brown more headaches. A member of Parliament in a northern district died recently. That opened up what's known in Britain as a by-election for the vacant parliamentary seat. And it's being called the most crucial by-election of the last decade because it's expected to measure just how unpopular the prime minister has become. NPR's Rob Gifford reports.

ROB GIFFORD: The class war is over, declared Tony Blair in 1999, as well he might. Educated at the poshest private school in Scotland, Blair shifted the traditionally working class Labour Party firmly into the middle class. Now, though, with Blair's successor Gordon Brown in trouble, and the main opposition conservative party smelling blood, senior Labour Party figures like Frank Dobson have been up Crewe and Nantwich campaigning. Their main line of attack on the wealthy privately educated Conservative candidate and his leader David Cameron has been to issue posters of them wearing top hats and deriding them as out of touch with common people.

Mr. DAVID CAMERON (Leader of the Conservative Party): We need to get our act together, and we need to better, but I'm confident that we will. And I think that when it boils down to it, British people would rather they had a careful, thoughtful man as the prime minister rather than a flippity-gibbet toff.

GIFFORD: Flippity-gibbet toff, for those needing interpretation, is a light-weight posh person. Toffs are undergoing something of a resurgence these days in the Conservative Party. David Cameron went to Eaton and Oxford, so it seems did half his party's front bench and the new mayor of London, Boris Johnson. But Cameron has so far been relatively successful in neutralizing the toff factor by presenting himself as just a regular guy. Now it's the conservatives saying the class war is over.

Mr. CAMERON: The Labour Party's approach to, you know, dress people up in top hats and play games of class war, they're hugely mistaken. I think the whole country's moved on from that. People actually want a party that's trying to bring the country together and wants everyone to have aspirations, not to talk about the past and divisions.

GIFFORD: But all of this is masking a much bigger issue, that the Labour Party is very worried indeed that it could lose the seat of Crewe and Nantwich for the first time since World War II. Critics say for the ruling Labour Party to restart the class war is an act of desperation in a by-election that's being seen as something of a referendum on the leadership of Gordon Brown. With the housing market stalling, the global outlook bleak, and having made some major gaffs recently on economic issues, the Labour Party leader is coming under increasing attack. John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, says defeat today would be a disaster for Gordon Brown.

Professor JOHN CURTICE (Politics, Strathclyde University): He is already now getting opinion poll ratings where he's something like 14, 15 points behind the Conservatives. We had assertive local elections earlier this month in which Labour Party put in its worst performance for at least 40 years. If we now get the government losing a by-election, it would confirm the impression we already have, which is at the moment, at least, the government is potentially heading for defeat in the next general election, and the doubts that many people have as to whether or not Gordon Brown is capable of turning around his party's position are likely to be reinforced.

GIFFORD: And that could even mean a challenge to Gordon Brown's leadership from within his own party. The problem for the Labour Party is that it's been in power 11 years already, and by the time the next election comes around, that'll be more like 13 years. Even if there is some kind of economic recovery, and even if the Labour Party candidate holds onto the seat in Crewe and Nantwich today, it make take more than trying to reignite the class war in Britain to keep the Labour Party in power.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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