LONDON, July 27 (UPI) -- Already a lame duck administration, the British government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown is barely even limping this week after a humiliating defeat in a by-election in Norwich and more grim economic news.
Expecting to record just a 0.3 percent decline in gross domestic product in the second quarter, the British economy shrank by almost a full percentage point, and the government budget deficit is getting even worse. The latest figures show that government revenues were 8.2 percent lower in June than in the same period 12 months ago, while social security benefits increased by 9.7 percent.
The Norwich by-election saw a Labor majority of 5,500 votes overthrown with the Conservatives winning the seat by more than 7,000 votes. But the results were not entirely comforting for David Cameron, the conservative leader who seems increasingly assured of becoming prime minister in next year's general election.
Chloe Smith, the winning Conservative who at 27 becomes the youngest member of Parliament, scored fewer votes than her predecessor in the last general election. But the Labor vote collapsed, from 21,000 to 6,200, an extraordinary decline that points to the demoralization of Labor supporters during the deep recession.
For many commentators, however, the most startling feature of the Norwich vote was the weakness of all three of the country's traditional parties and the surge in support for new minor parties. The Conservatives took 39 percent of the vote, Labor won 18 percent and the Liberal-democrats won 14 percent. But between them the new insurgent parties of the Greens, the anti-immigrant British Nationalists, the anti-European U.K. Independence Party, Honesty in Politics and others won 28 percent of the vote.
This is most unusual in British politics and reflects the anger of many voters at this year's long-running scandal over the way many members of Parliament abused their official expense accounts. The Norwich by-election was forced by the resignation of the incumbent, who was accused of letting his student daughter live rent-free in the London accommodation that he occupied with his MP's housing allowance.
That was one of the most minor complaints; other MPs used their various allowances to pay supermarket and video rental bills, or to buy houses while in fact staying with relatives, and in one bizarre case to have the moat cleaned at his private castle. The long-running scandal, which began when an anonymous CD containing all the MPs' expenses claims arrived at a London newspaper office, has severely undermined public faith in politics, politicians and the institution of what likes to call itself the Mother of Parliaments.
So the Conservatives are also worried that their longed-for victory next year could be shrouded or even denied by a massive protest vote for the new parties. Indeed, most commentators suspect that next year's election could result in a hung Parliament, with the Conservatives as the largest single party but without sufficient seats to govern alone and thus requiring a coalition partner.
Much will depend on the degree to which traditional Labor Party supporters will grit their teeth and vote for their party and for the unpopular Brown. Their loyalty was tested by the unpopular decision by Prime Minister Tony Blair to join U.S. President George W. Bush's war in Iraq and is being tested again now by the Afghan war, which has already seen more British soldiers killed than the six years in Iraq.
And now Labor voters have been given yet another reason to question their party's leadership and to withhold their support. Last week a former Labor government minister, Alan Milburn, published a sobering official report that said that the last 12 years of Labor government had seen a widening gap between rich and poor and a decline in social mobility, and that children from the poorer social groups now have less chance of getting into the elite universities and the top professions than children born in 1958.
Social equality and the erosion of inherited wealth and privilege has long been the Labor Party's core principle. But the Milburn report showed that the 7 percent of the population who go to private schools not only still dominate the commanding heights of British society, but their dominance is increasing. They produce 75 percent of Britain's judges, 70 percent of finance directors, 45 percent of top civil servants and 32 percent of MPs.
"It is uncomfortable to be told such truths," commented The Guardian newspaper. "Behind its modern veneer, British society is determined by who you know, and who your parents are."