Labour suffers local poll losses.jpg

Labour suffers local poll losses

BRITAIN’S LABOUR government took an expected drubbing at last week’s (May 4) local elections, following a series of scandals involving senior ministers. Although quite a catastrophic defeat, Prime Minister Tony Blair has not resigned or been persuaded to name the date when “heir apparent” Gordon Brown can expect to move next door.

The period up to the local election has been the worst spell for Blair since he walked up Downing Street on a sunny, hope-filled May morning in 1997. The catalogue of gloom first unfolded when health workers barracked Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt at their annual congress in Bournemouth. Nurses, worried about job losses and health service cuts, berated Hewitt for boasting that the previous year had been the best ever for the NHS.

Worse followed when Home Secretary Charles Clarke admitted that 1,023 foreign prisoners had been freed without being considered for deportation. Among the prisoners, five had been convicted of committing sex offences on children, seven had served time for other sex offences, 57 had been convicted of violent offences and 27 for indecent assault. In the post election Cabinet reshuffle, John Reid takes over from Charles Clarke as Home Secretary.

Then, Blair’s deputy, John Prescott, admitted an affair with his former diary secretary, Tracy Temple. The press said that their relationship began shortly after Temple began working for Prescott in 2001. Further allegations then surfaced about the Hull MP’s relationship with a Labour Party female candidate more than 20 years ago. The Sun’s former political editor, Trevor Kavanagh, noted that much of the media had long since known about Prescott’s extra-marital affairs. Britain’s Deputy Prime Minister, in theory, a ‘heartbeat’ away from the top job, is now a figure of fun. But he remains as deputy prime minister, although ex-education secretary Ruth Kelly is to take over some of Mr Prescott’s responsibilities.

Government tires after

nine years in power

All governments run out of steam in the end just as, in the words of Enoch Powell, “all political careers end in failure”. It’s now nine years since Tony Blair became Prime Minister, a reign only surpassed over the last century by Margaret Thatcher, who served for eleven and a half years. And Blair may well care to note her example. Had Mrs Thatcher retired in May 1989, the 10th anniversary of her coming to power, nearly all Conservative MP’s would have ranked her alongside Churchill as one of the Tory party’s greatest leaders. Instead, she stuck stubbornly to power and her judgement wobbled. She introduced the loathed poll tax, slumped in the polls and alienated many of her own backbenchers – leading to her downfall in November 1990.

Blair’s period in office is now drawing to a close. Unlike Mrs Thatcher, he has decided not to fight a fourth election. But he cannot banish the inevitable hubris that comes after a long period in power. Top ministers (especially ones who feel immune from a cabinet reshuffle) become complacent and arrogant. They act as though they have a God-given right to the offices they hold, accustomed to deference and patronage. Power, as we have seen before, is an aphrodisiac – what else could possibly explain Prescott’s ‘appeal’ to women?

What of ‘shame’ and ‘honour’?

The Department of Health and the Home Office are obviously poisoned chalices for ministers anyway, susceptible to frequent ‘bad news days’. At the Home Office, ministers become obsessed, not with reversing the anti-social behaviour for which Britain is now internationally renown, but with news-management. Truth be told, there is no coherent strategy for dealing with crime in Britain, because the only solution that would work (zero tolerance), is deemed politically unacceptable. So, instead, the department massages statistics and spins news stories.

Recent events tell us very little about politics – although David Cameron’s Conservatives and even the far-right British National Party may rightfully have benefited from Labour’s unpopularity. But, ministers’ reactions are very revealing about the general malaise sweeping through Britain in 2006. There was a time when a minister presiding over this type of shambles at the Home Office would have resigned immediately. Similarly, a serial philanderer occupying a top government post would also have quit. But notions of honour or shame are now deemed old-fashioned in today’s ‘anything goes’ society. Politicians no longer feel embarrassed when they are exposed as wrongdoers – instead they think they can weather the storm or briefly disappear from the stage, before re-emerging six months later in charge of another department. Regrettably, an unselfconscious attitude towards immorality transcends all facets of British life. It’s up to our public figures to set an example and recent events prove, yet again, that they are failing to do so.

By Gabriel Hershman

• Gabriel can be contacted via e-mail at [email protected]