British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was in the firing line yesterday after voters handed his governing Labour Party a punishing by-election defeat.
Malcontents hit out at Brown and one Labour lawmaker vowed to step down as the party picked over the bones of the defeat, in the first poll triggered by the recent scandal over lawmakers’ lavish expenses claims.
Meanwhile, newspapers predicted doom for the center-left party at the next general election — which Brown must call within 11 months — following the pounding in the Norwich North constituency in eastern England.
Labour was hammered into second place by the center-right, main opposition Conservative Party, which overturned Labour’s majority of 5,549 at the last election in 2005 to take the seat by more than 7,000 votes on Friday.
Spurned by his party, the sitting lawmaker Ian Gibson quit last month after revelations that he claimed nearly £80,000 (US$132,000) in second home expenses on a London flat that he later sold cheaply to his daughter.
Labour’s Charles Clarke, the member of parliament (MP) for Norwich South and a former interior minister, said Brown had “vilified Ian Gibson, but not on any fair basis.”
“This incompetent and unjust style has deeply damaged democratic politics,” he wrote in the Independent newspaper.
“The main reason for the Norwich result was that voters there were quite clear that it was for them, not the Labour leadership, to decide whether or not Ian Gibson remained their MP,” Clarke wrote. “These voters ... thought, as I do, that Labour ended his political career for cynical reasons with no due process.”
Meanwhile, Labour backbencher Andrew MacKinlay, an MP since 1992, said he was joining those stepping down at the next general election because he was fed up with colleagues following the party line rather than their own consciences.
“I believe it’s the role of backbenchers to probe and criticize,” he told the Daily Mail newspaper. “I was really frustrated ... when the crunch came, they just went tribal and followed the diktats of the party. Their concept of parliament is totally different to mine.”
MPs who say one thing and do another had caused “widespread disillusion with the political process.”
“I have been swimming against the tide and you can only do that for so long before you are exhausted,” MacKinlay said.
Brown admitted Norwich North was “clearly a disappointing result” but said voters were disaffected with all main parties in the wake of the expenses furore.
The Financial Times newspaper said the Norwich North result was “the latest episode in the long-running meltdown of the British government.”
“The government’s last hope — that economic recovery will build its support — is now a distant prospect,” the Financial Times said. “The UK sits in a rut. The government is sliding towards its inglorious end.”
The Guardian newspaper said: “Unless the economy picks up or Mr Brown improbably finds a way of turning things around — or unless the party finally despairs of him and elects a new leader with greater electoral appeal — Labour now looks like toast.”
The Times newspaper said Labour rightly thought the electorate was unsure about the Conservatives, but that was “irrelevant so long as Labour itself is quite as unpopular as it is.”
Conservative leader David Cameron, whose party is consistently well ahead in opinion polls, said the Norwich North result showed people had “had enough” of Brown and “want change in our country.”