Legacy of Iraq spells warning to British Prime Minister
Brent East, a safe government seat, fell yesterday to the Liberal Democrats in a massive swing of 29% away from Labour. Inability to trust the Prime Minister due to the reasons given for the war against Iraq are said to be the main reasons behind the result.
The Labour majority of 13, 047 votes from the last election (2001) was overturned into a Liberal Democrat majority of 1,100, 29-year-old Sarah Teather becoming the youngest Member of Parliament in the House of Commons.
The election victory prompted the Liberal Democrats to celebrate what they perceive as a sign of great things to come in future. For the Tories, the election saw a 2% drop in the voting percentage, due largely to the ineptitude of the candidate, Uma Fernandes, of Indian origin, who had been drafted in to capture the ethnic vote, finding out that colour of skin is not enough.
For Labour, it was a disaster. A 29% swing to the Liberals in this area could mean massive swings to the Tories in others (given that Brent East is never a realistic objective for the Tory Party). It was a yellow card by the electorate for Tony Blair, perceived by the majority as the man who, in his foreign policy, took Britain into an illegal war based upon forged documents and lies and not upon the pretexts presented to the population, a fair judgement. It was a yellow card also because many people in Britain perceive Tony Blair as being the man who, in his domestic policy, has promised everything but who has failed to deliver, although this may be an unfair judgement. The point is that the British electorate are more concerned about home issues, issues which affect them, than a war thousands of miles away for dubious reasons.
However, why yellow and not red? It was not a red card because it was a by-election, which is traditionally, especially in mid-term, punishing for the government in power and also, because the Liberal Democrats are particularly skilful at winning seats in this type of election. Having only 54 Members of Parliament out of a total of 659, this tightly-knit and extremely well-organized party relishes the one-offs, because in general elections, the vote tends to polarize between the two major parties: Labour and the Tories.
It was also not a red card because the turnout was very low – 36.4% - and the notion is clear that if the Labour electorate had turned out en masse, the result would have been different. However, it has to be admitted that the swing away from Labour would have been apparent - but never 29%.
It was not a red card, fundamentally, because this election, although it was in the heart of Labour supporters, came in mid term. Tony Blair’s communications department has the time to repair the damage. The main opposition party, the Tory Party, will make some inroads in the next general election, as will the Liberals but when the time comes, the voters will think again between Tory and Labour and no amount of power-walking practice by the Tory leader, Ian Duncan-Smith (or IDS as he is called) will be enough to make a serious challenge to Blair’s enormous majority (163 seats) in the House of Commons.