UK PM Promises to Be A Better Listener, After Local Election Rout

Kevin McCandless | Correspondent | Monday, May 5, 2008

UK PM Promises to Be A Better Listener, After Local Election Rout

London ( - As Britain's ruling Labor Party reels from its worst election results in four decades, politicians and experts said this weekend that the clock has begun to tick down for Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Conservative Boris Johnson last week defeated two-term incumbent Ken Livingstone in the hard-fought race to be mayor of London, with a margin of little under 140,000 votes out the more than four million cast for the top job.

The leftwing mayor, nicknamed "Red Ken," was not the only Laborite headed for the political wings. In other local contests across England and Wales, the party lost 331 seats and saw its share of the national vote fall to 28 percent.

In contrast, the Conservative Party under leader David Cameron won 44 percent of the vote, an outcome that boosts its hopes of returning to power in the next general election, after more than a decade in opposition.

Doing the political talk show rounds over the weekend, Brown pledged to "listen and learn" from disgruntled voters. But some Labor lawmakers publicly worried that the prime minister would not be able to rescue his party from more defeat.

In addition to lingering fallout over Britain's role in the war in Iraq, the government has also come in for strong criticism this year over tax changes that have hit the working class and poor the hardest.

The prime minister, who succeeded Tony Blair last June without winning an election, is seen as dull and ponderous, especially when compared to more energetic and youthful Cameron, who has been credited with reviving a Tory Party that has been out of government since 1997.

John McDonnell, a Labor member of parliament who has often spoken for his party's socialist wing, said it was time for the centrist Brown to return to the left-wing policies of the past. The prime minister could not "spin" his way back to popularity, he said.

"After the worst results in 40 years, it is intellectually unsustainable for ministers to simply tell the electorate that the government is listening," McDonnell said. "Prevarication will only lead to a Tory government."

Under British law, Brown has until May 2010 to call the next general election. But unnamed "government ministers" told the British press on Sunday that moves could be made within the party to replace him if improvements were not evident within a year.

Victoria Honeyman, a political expert at the University of Leeds, said that although the results could simply be a "bloody nose" from a temporarily unhappy public, she suspected that it could signal the end of the Labor government.

Brown had a successful ten-year run as Chancellor of the Exchequer -- senior finance minister -- but he lacks Blair's charisma and political instincts, she said.

"Tony Blair, no matter how you felt about him politically, certainly had the skills and talents to be a prime minister," Honeyman said. "I'm not sure if Gordon Brown has those skills."

Brown forced out his long-term rival Blair after an epic behind-the-scenes feud, but Martin Farr, political science professor at Newcastle University, said he doubted the scenario would repeat itself, with Brown as the target.

Despite the Labor Party's fear of electoral defeat, and the fears of Labor lawmakers holding unsafe constituency seats, the party could not afford to have a third leader in so short a period of time without appearing to be unstable, Farr said.

As far as the situation in London goes, Farr said he had discussed with some Conservatives their private concerns about the effect incoming mayor Johnson may have on the party's image.

He said Johnson, a former journalist with a reputation for colorful, politically-incorrect quotes, had been "basically muzzled" by his managers during the campaign, but it would likely prove impossible to keep him gaffe-free as mayor.

Among the first steps Johnson announced after his victory was a plan to beef up the capital's police force, using funds cut from the mayor's publicity and media budget.

Sian Berry, the Green Party's candidate in the mayoral race, predicted "a change of tone and budget cuts" under Johnson.

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