x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

By-election defeat looms for Labour

UK government faces a backlash from voters today but the Opposition must win Norwich North to maintain its electoral momentum.

LONDON // A grim year for Gordon Brown and his government looks doomed to get immeasurably worse in the early hours of tomorrow. That is when the result will be declared in Norwich North, a bellwether constituency in East Anglia, after a by-election contest that the prime minister certainly did not want and the outcome of which he must dread. Norwich North fell to the Labour Party in 1997 on the day that Tony Blair led Labour to power. For 14 years before that, it had been in the Conservatives' hands, as had the government of the UK. Now Ian Gibson, the current MP, has forced a by-election by standing down early after being deselected as a candidate at the next general election, following the expenses scandal that rocked the House of Commons. When the polling booths close this evening, nobody expects that Labour will have been able to defend its 5,459-vote majority. And defeat will inevitably renew questions about the leadership of Mr Brown. "A Conservative victory is the most sure-fire political bet since Robert Mugabe was re-elected in Zimbabwe," a senior Labour Party political activist said ruefully this week. "The only question is how badly we will do. Some people are predicting we could end up behind not only the Tories, but also behind the Greens, Liberal Democrats and UKIP [UK Independence Party]. That would be a disaster of unspeakable proportions." There is suspicion that Labour might be deliberately talking down its chances in the hope of being able to portray a second - or even third-place finish as something of a success. A survey conducted last weekend in Norwich North put the Conservatives at 34 per cent, only four points ahead of Labour. Nationally, the Conservatives are estimated to have a lead four times greater. The dire straits that Mr Brown and his party find themselves in got marginally worse on Tuesday when Chris Ostrowski, Labour's candidate in the by-election, collapsed with suspected swine flu. Cynics suggested that he was trying to get out the sympathy vote. Realists suggested that he was trying to get out of personally attending the declaration of the result tonight. Given the apparent inevitability of defeat, however, a couple of things are running in Mr Brown's favour. The timing of the election comes as parliament and, hence, mainstream politics heads off for its three-month summer break. By the time autumn rolls around and MPs return to Westminster, the Norwich North disaster might be little more than a distant memory. Additionally, the countless stories that have emerged this year over MPs fiddling their generous expense allowances have so disenchanted the public with the body politic that all the main parties, the Conservatives included, might find they had to get out the votes in the by-election. In turn, that is giving new hope to the fringe parties in Norwich North, particularly the Greens who have 13 councillors in the city and who took one-quarter of the votes in Norwich in the recent European parliament elections. They could also be helped by the fact that the constituency is split between a built-up city area and rural, well-heeled villages where UKIP might do well in attracting votes from Conservative supporters fed up over the expenses scandal. Mr Gibson, who still has a large personal following among voters and who is considered to have been shabbily treated by party officials, has done little to dent the Greens' hopes of gaining their first Westminster seat, if not now, then eventually. "I'm still a member of the Labour Party, but very uneasy about the way I've been treated," he said. "The Green Party are developing and they know they've got a lot of support. "The other parties better take notice because they work hard, they are young and they are keen. I've no doubt that Norwich could fall to them in the future." Nevertheless, the Conservatives remain firm favourites to win the seat and, should they fail to do so, the by-election would be as a big a blow to them as losing the seat will be to Labour. David Cameron, the Conservative leader, who campaigned in the city alongside the party's candidate, Chloe Smith, insisted that he was not taking victory for granted. "I just think that people are very dispirited with politics," Mr Cameron said. "We have fought a really positive campaign all the way through. I think Chloe's campaign has been a model. I want a high turnout and we will be working hard to help Chloe." For Mr Brown, defeat would mean that his MPs would go away on their summer break increasingly nervous about his leadership. If they cannot hold a safe seat like Norwich North, in the eastern part of England, it is unlikely they will be forming the next government after the general election. Andrew Sinclair, the BBC's political correspondent in East Anglia, said that the by-election has yet to generate much excitement among a disillusioned public. "So far a lot of this campaign has been fought in the media with carefully selected photo calls and press releases on subjects from clean campaigning to local policing but there's been less interaction with the public," he said. "From my conversations with voters, there seems to be a lot of people who still need to be won over. They were perfectly happy with their last MP, they're suspicious of all politicians after the expenses revelations and they're not particularly bowled over by any of the candidates. "And privately, the parties agree. There are a lot of undecideds out there, they say. The result is far from certain." dsapsted@thenational.ae