The Labour Party’s shock defeat in a crucial parliamentary by-election in Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s native Scotland has plunged it into a deep crisis. It has triggered calls for a change of leadership ahead of the next general election, barely 18 months away. The party lost Glasgow East, regarded as one of its safest seats, to the Scottish National Party, which came in from the cold to overturn a Labour majority of 13,000. The SNP dubbed it a “political earthquake off the Richter scale.” It is reckoned that should the scale of anti-Labour swing in Glasgow East be replicated at the national level, Mr. Brown and most of his Cabinet Ministers would lose their seats in a general election. The fact that it is Labour’s third by-election defeat in a row since Mr. Brown became leader 13 months ago has led even his supporters to question whether the party can win the next election under his leadership. Under his watch, Labour also lost the prestigious London mayoral election and suffered massive losses in the May local elections. When Mr. Brown replaced Tony Blair in June 2007, he vowed to revive the party. Instead, its fortunes have plummeted. With opinion polls giving Tories a 20-point lead, Labour is in worse shape now than in the darkest days of the Blair era.

Labour swept to power in 1997 after 18 years in the political wilderness and has won two general elections since but there is every indication that its dominance is coming to an end. A new poll in the pro-Labour Independent newspaper reveals that 53 per cent of the voters believe that Tories are “ready to govern.” Among Labour voters, “almost one in four” agrees with this assessment. Senior Ministers have been reported saying that with the Glasgow East defeat, the “tipping point” has been reached and only a change of leadership can save the party. A group of senior MPs, with the tacit backing of some Cabinet Ministers, has launched a campaign to challenge Mr. Brown’s leadership at the party’s annual conference in September if, by then, he does not offer to step down. Mr. Brown’s political difficulties have been compounded by a serious economic downturn that has hit the poor — Labour’s traditional supporters — the most. He has also alienated them with some of his policies such as the controversial decision to raise the lowest rate of income tax, which he was forced to reverse after a huge protest and a backbench revolt. Attempts to blame rising prices, high inflation, and job losses on the global economic crisis have failed to impress the people. For a man regarded as the architect of Labour’s reputation for economic competence, it will be the ultimate irony if he has to go for mismanaging the economy.