Britain’s ruling Labour party has been soundly beaten in a local by-election, in a result seen by commentators as a barometer of the government’s waning popularity.
Sarah Teather, of Britain’s third party, the Liberal Democrats, snatched a large majority from Labour to win the parliamentary seat for the London constituency of Brent East by over a thousand votes.
Teather, 29, will become parliament’s youngest member. She received 8158 votes (39%) while Labour’s candidate Robert Evans trailed with 7040 (34%). The Conservative party, who also backed the invasion of Iraq, languished far behind with 3368 (16%).
While the result seems close, the results are a devastating defeat for Tony Blair's Labour in what was considered a safe seat. In the 2001 general election, the party won with 63% of the vote, with the Conservatives second with 18% of votes cast and the Liberal Democrats getting just 10%.
Labour has not lost a seat in the House of Commons in a by-election for 15 years.
The election was called following the untimely death from cancer at 45 of Paul Daisley, the Labour MP for one of Britain’s most ethnically diverse constituencies. B
rent in north London is one of only two boroughs in the United Kingdom to have a larger black and Asian population than white, the council claims.
A former leader of Brent Council, Daisley had taken over the seat from Ken Livingstone, who is now Mayor of London.
"The tide may be turning against Tony Blair and New Labour, but the tide remains far out for the Conservatives in this country"
New Liberal Democrat MP
British voters’ distrust with politicians in the wake of the war in Iraq was reflected in a dismally low turnout. Only 20,966 made the trip to the polling stations - 36% of those registered to vote.
Tony Blair’s Labour government has alienated much of its core support through the controversial privatisation of public services and the deeply unpopular invasion of Iraq.
Teather hailed her victory as a wakeup call for Britain’s beleaguered prime minister.
"Tony Blair, I hope that you are listening tonight. The people of Brent have spoken for the people of Britain," she said.
"They want you to listen. They want you to deliver.
"But there is no comfort in this result tonight for the Conservative Party. They are irrelevant to constituencies like this," she went on.
"The tide may be turning against Tony Blair and New Labour, but the tide remains far out for the Conservatives in this country."
Labour party chairman Ian McCartney said he was disappointed with the result, and blamed the Iraq war for Evans’ defeat.
"The backdrop of the controversy surrounding the Iraqi conflict, in its many forms, made this the most difficult by-election Labour has fought in the last 20 years. "A disproportionate number of Labour voters staying at home was also a key feature," he told the BBC.
Ihtishan Hibatullah, media chief of the Muslim Association of Britain claimed that his organisation's backing helped to swing the election for the Liberal Democrats.
"We are overwhelmed," he said. "We mobilised the Muslim community who were against the war."
He echoed Teather's comments that this was a warning sign to Tony Blair to shape up before the next general election.
"There will be far more marginal seats than this one," he said. "The Muslims of Britain will demand an ethical foreign policy from this government. It is not too late for Blair to change direction in Palestine and Iraq."