When it comes to byelections, it is easy to over-interpret. But the Labour Party’s loss of the Brent East seat in a parliamentary byelection earlier this week is more than just a hiccup in Mr Tony Blair’s determined course of doing his own thing, come whatever. Until now, Labour had not lost a seat in a byelection since 1998. It had not even faced a close contest in one since Mr Blair became party leader nine years ago. But things are suddenly very different. This London constituency has a Liberal Democrat member of parliament now — a little-known 29-year-old woman — and Labour’s vote has collapsed by 29 per cent, a fall unmatched since a couple of decades ago. This northwest-London constituency — somewhere between inner city and suburb, with a solid mix of working-class and middle-class voters, a significant number of whom are Muslims — has become the crucial indicator of an important change in Britain. And this change could be best described as a widespread loss of faith in the prime minister as a result of the Iraq war. The price of the war, the dossier scandal, David Kelley’s death and the Hutton inquiry is now suddenly made manifest. What the British popularity polls have been indicating for some time has taken on a starker, explicitly electoral form.
When Mr Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democratic Party leader, talks about “an awful sense of doubt”, he puts into words the general loss of trust, confidence and credibility which informs public perceptions of the prime minister and his party in Britain. The British, particularly old Labour faithfuls, are feeling badly let down. There seem to be far too many half-truths, fabrications, if not downright lies, and a general lack of moral fibre. They find Mr Blair’s cussedness in the face of all this far from admirable, and they find it difficult to believe what he says. This air of disillusionment is further reflected in the 36.23 per cent turnout in the Brent East byelections, a fall of 13.68 per cent since 2001. It is, of course, true that a single byelection changes very little. Besides, the aftermath of the Iraq war is not the only issue determining these results. Public services like education and health, and the tightening of asylum legislation were important factors here, apart from local disgruntlements. Moreover, the Liberal Democrats — consistently anti-war, pro-European and environment-friendly — are still a long way from being a plausible competitor for national power. The Tories have also been made to look pretty dismal at Brent East. But none of this makes it any easier to look away from the fact that Mr Blair’s electorate is definitely beginning to like him less.