UK Labor Party Holds Conference While Buffeted By Crises

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

London ( - Britain's ruling Labor Party is conducting its annual conference Monday amid a continuing slump in opinion polls. In addition, Prime Minister Tony Blair and other party leaders are under fire on several fronts.

Every opinion poll in the past two weeks has shown Labor either level or behind the official opposition Conservative Party, in some cases giving Labor its worst showing in eight years.

Voters are unhappy at the government's failure to bend to public anger over climbing fuel taxes, and pensioners, backed by trade unions, want basic state pensions to be increased in line with average earnings.

The failure of the much-vaunted Millennium Dome in London has added to the government's woes as are signs of cabinet splits over the handling of recent crises.

Furthermore, Blair and his finance minister, Chancellor Gordon Brown, face accusations of sleaze relating to a $1.4 million campaign donation by the head of auto racing's Formula One and a subsequent decision to exclude motor racing from a ban on tobacco advertising.

A pre-conference Gallup poll commissioned by a major national newspaper found that, since last year's annual conference, the number of voters "reasonably well satisfied" with the government's record had fallen by more than half, and those "very unhappy" had almost tripled.

Last year at this time, 37 percent of voters thought Blair "an outstanding prime minister." Now, that figure has dropped to 19 percent, and more than 70 percent think he is "beginning to lose touch with ordinary people."

There are signs Blair is deeply worried about the shift in voter perceptions.

In media interviews Sunday, Blair admitted that going ahead with the Millennium Dome project may have been a mistake, and he accepted responsibility for the government's handling both of the Dome and fuel tax protests.

The Dome, a huge public attraction that cost about $1 billion to develop, has failed to live up to expectations or draw the projected number of visitors. Having propped up the enterprise with injections of cash raised by the national lottery meant to fund charities, the government is trying to find a buyer. A Japanese bank interested in taking over the project recently pulled out.

Protests earlier this month by truckers and farmers angry at the high cost of petrol and diesel shut down thousands of gas stations, causing widespread disruption and threatening to bring the country to a halt.

Some ministers have broken cabinet ranks on these issues.

Most recently, Northern Ireland Minister Peter Mandelson conceded over the weekend that the government had appeared unsympathetic and "high-handed" over the fuel tax issue - a comment widely interpreted as being critical of Brown.

Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott also called publicly for Brown to act on pensions.

In one television interview Sunday, Blair hinted there might be concessions on fuel tax and pensions.

Brown, who has remained adamant that he will not make "quick fix" taxation and spending policy changes under pressure, finally appeared to give way slightly Monday, telling the conference that the government would budget more money for low- and middle-income citizens' pensions.

However, much of his speech found Brown praising the government for economic policies he said had, since 1997, lowered unemployment and ended "boom and bust" cycles.

The Conservative Party slammed him for a speech it said was "typically arrogant and out of touch."

"Voters were desperate for evidence that he'd been listening, but instead, all they got was 40 minutes of self-righteous rhetoric about how he'd been right all along," said the Conservative Party's finance spokesman, Michael Portillo, Monday afternoon.

"There was no apology for Labor's huge tax hikes, increasing pensioner poverty, larger class-sizes, rising crime and longer [health service] waiting lists. On the things that really matter to people, he held out nothing new, no change of direction and no apology," Portillo said.

Enjoying their unaccustomed lead in opinion polls, the Conservatives have increased their attacks on Labor, demanding that Blair apologize for the Dome fiasco and come clean on the Formula One influence-peddling allegations.

Both Blair and Brown have denied misleading the public over the affairs.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow