Brown in a bother as Britain votes

Voting began on Thursday in Britain for European Parliament and local authority elections, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown fighting for his political survival.

Brown is struggling to assert his authority amid resignations and an alleged backbench plot to oust him. Four government ministers—two Cabinet members and two junior ministers—have quit in the past two days.

In power since 1997, the Labour Party has borne the brunt of public outrage at revelations of dodgy expenses claims made by lawmakers, a row made worse by the fact Britain is struggling to climb out of its worst recession in decades.

Britain’s 72 seats in the European Parliament were up for grabs on Thursday, while voters in various parts of England were also choosing 2 318 local councillors and three mayors.

Opinion polls suggest Labour could finish in third place behind the main opposition Conservatives—tipped to win the next general election due by the middle of 2010—and the Liberal Democrats.

A poor showing for Labour would pile further pressure on Brown, who has been repeatedly challenged by Conservative leader David Cameron to call a general election and endured taunts in Parliament on Wednesday that his government was in “total meltdown”.

A spokesperson for Brown’s Downing Street office said the prime minister was spending the day there working.

“The prime minister is focused on getting the job done on renewing trust in our political system and our democratic processes and taking the kind of decisions that will help the British people get through difficult economic circumstances,” he said.

The polls, which opened at 7am, close at 10pm. The local election results are expected on Friday, but the results of the European elections are not due to be published until Sunday, in line with other European Union member states.

Communities Secretary Hazel Blears, who faced criticism over her expenses, resigned on Wednesday, and Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said she would step down at the next Cabinet reshuffle, expected within days.

Newspapers reported on Thursday an email was being circulated to Labour MPs to sign, calling for Brown—who succeeded Tony Blair in 2007—to step aside so a new leader can fight the next general election.

Addressed to the prime minister, the email highlights his “enormous contribution to this country and to the Labour Party, and this is very widely acknowledged.

“However ...
in the current political situation, you can best serve the Labour Party and the country by stepping down as party leader and prime minister, and so allowing the party to choose a new leader to take us into the next general election.”

Business Secretary Peter Mandelson urged colleagues not to sign the letter.

“British politics is in a bad old state, nobody is happy and it’s affecting all the parties,” he told the BBC, admitting that lawmakers were in a “grumbly mood”
“Don’t please, through your actions, make it any worse for the Labour Party than for the other parties who have all got to come to grips with this crisis affecting British politics.”

The Conservatives are expected to top the polls, while analysts have predicted an increase in support for fringe parties such as the eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the far-right British National Party (BNP).

A YouGov poll for The Daily Telegraph newspaper published on Thursday suggested that among people certain to vote, 26% would back the Conservatives, 18% UKIP, 16% Labour and 15% the Liberal Democrats.

The survey of 4 014 people, carried out on Tuesday and Wednesday, put the Green Party on 10% and the BNP on 5%—which could be enough to hand them their first European Parliament lawmaker.—AFP

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