At Large

Hard Labour

With the Tory victories last week, Gordon Brown is in for the fight of his life.

By 5.5.08

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British Conservatives are smiling again. Last week's council election results were Labour's worst humiliation for more than 40 years.

Labour lost 331 council seats in England and Wales. Their share of the vote dropped to 24 percent, putting them third, behind the Liberal Democrats. Gordon Brown, Britain's staggeringly unpopular Prime Minister, admitted that he was "hurt" by the defeat. That's about as close as he gets to candor.

The Conservative party, led by David Cameron, obtained 44 per cent of the vote. Impressively, they made gains in the north -- the heartland of the British Left -- winning in places where they have been out of power for a generation, or longer.

Nobody is sure exactly what this means, just yet. Local elections are not necessarily reliable indicators of significant political shifts. If last week's results were reflected in a general election, Conservatives would win by 126 seats. But in 2004, New Labour was also trounced in the local elections, only to win easily when it really mattered in 2005.

THIS YEAR, HOWEVER, Labour's humiliation has been compounded by the loss of the London mayoralty. In a high-profile contest that drew international attention, former London Spectator editor Boris Johnson, widely and idiotically dismissed as a "clown," defeated the incumbent Ken Livingstone.

Johnson's victory is encouraging to conservatives of all stripes, even more so because it is widely acknowledged that Livingstone -- a popular maverick -- lost because he ran as a Labour candidate, rather than as an independent.

With Mayor Johnson, the Tories have someone in a position of real power for the first time since 1997. The symbolic importance of regaining influence in the capital should not be underestimated.

Gordon Brown, in contrast to Boris Johnson, has never won a serious election. Last week's results suggest that democracy is catching up with him. Today, it is hard to imagine the Prime Minister winning anything.

Brown is increasingly distrusted and despised. In last year's budget, he scrapped the ten pence tax-rate band that helped medium to low income earners. This widely denounced move, along with countless other "stealth taxes" and administrative blunders, has created the impression that Labour is inflicting the harshest fiscal burden on the poor.

Labour leaders talk about the toughness of the current economic climate, but their problems are far deeper. Their Party is in crisis. Tony Blair's infectious optimism has gone and, without him, Brown can't keep the movement alive. He promises a new Britain, a new politics, even a new international world order. No one believes him.

After 11 years in government, New Labour can't claim to be new anymore.

WHAT THEN DOES David Cameron offer instead? For conservatives -- small c -- the answer is not much. Cameron is rightly dubbed "the heir to Blair," a moniker he has conspicuously sought.

He offers little hope that the size of government will be reduced. His party is afraid to talk about tax cuts. He has embraced environmentalism, and his administration would impose taxes to stop people from polluting. All this is very distressing for old-fashioned Tories. New Conservatism, in the mold of New Labour, may be the only way to power, but that doesn't mean conservatives like it.

Nevertheless, victory is a great unifier. Even Cameron's most vociferous critics on the Right, would have rejoiced at the sight of Labour ministers fumbling through interviews, hopelessly trying to explain away their unpopularity.

Over the weekend, the right-wing British press offered hints that Cameron may yet be embraced as a savior. The hope remains that, once in office, the party will return to a more authentic conservatism.

Troubled right-wingers, meanwhile, can take solace in the reassuringly rotund figure of London's new Mayor, who in his brilliant career as a journalist, has consistently stood up for conservative -- big C, little c, all sorts of c -- values.

And he is a winner, which is actually what the Tory party has always been about. Indeed, the exceptionally intelligent Boris Johnson, who was born in New York, may have the right combination of style, charisma, and ambition to revive conservatism far beyond the British capital.

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