LONDON (Reuters) - Gordon Brown faces his first major electoral test as prime minister this week, battered by negative opinion polls, industrial unrest and simmering rebellion within his Labour Party.
The contest to become London’s mayor is the key battleground on Thursday when local elections take place in England and Wales.
Opinion polls on Sunday showed Labour would be forced out of office by the Conservatives if a national election were held now. The next election is due in 2010 at the latest.
“It is an indication of just how dire Labour’s position has become that a poll showing a 10-point Conservative lead may well be regarded as something of a relief for the party,” political analyst John Curtice wrote in the Sunday Telegraph.
Lord Levy, a former Labour party fundraiser and close ally of Brown’s predecessor Tony Blair, said he deplored the party’s infighting and lack of leadership after 11 years in power.
“I am saddened to see all of the bickering and I am saddened to see that somehow there does not appear to be that strong leadership that the Labour Party so desperately needs,” he wrote in memoirs being serialised in the Mail on Sunday.
Levy said Blair had told him Brown could not win a general election, a statement rejected by Blair’s office.
Teachers and civil servants went on strike last week over pay and a North Sea pipeline carrying up to half the country’s oil has been forced to close by a strike over pensions at a neighbouring refinery, boosting already high fuel prices.
Offering solace to Brown, who took over from Blair in June, is the drubbing Labour suffered in the 2004 local elections.
“It’s difficult for Labour to do much worse than they did in 2004,” said Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University. “They might gain some back.
“Not that many councils are going change hands. London will simply be the story.”
With a budget of 11 billion pounds, a population of 7.5 million and a thriving financial industry, London is the main prize.
Labour mayor Ken Livingstone has run London for the past eight years and is neck and neck in the polls with his Conservative opponent Boris Johnson. Both contenders are being actively backed by their national party leaders.
If Livingstone loses it is likely to rebound badly on Brown while a win for Johnson would be a shot in the arm for Conservative leader David Cameron.
“The London result is about morale for the parties,” said Cowley. “You can imagine a situation where he (Brown) hasn’t lost many council seats and he holds London and it seems like a good day.”
Livingstone has made the environment a key part of his mayoral campaign, pointing to the capital’s world-leading congestion charge and low emissions zone.
He has made friends among environmentalists but angered many richer residents, and has also been accused of arrogance and nepotism.
Johnson, a former journalist, has struggled to change his image of a likeable but gaffe-prone man lacking the organisational skills to run the affairs of a major city.
Additional reporting by Adrian Croft and Tim Castle; Editing by Robert Woodward