Page last updated at 18:08 GMT, Friday, 15 May 2009 19:08 UK

Labour launch haunted by expenses row

By Iain Watson
Political correspondent, BBC News

I am sure the intention was not to hide away from voters during the expenses row.

Ed Balls and Gordon Brown
Safety in numbers: Mr Brown meets pupils at a Derbyshire school

But holding Labour's European and English local elections launch at the very edge of a housing estate in Ilkeston, Derbyshire - around half an hour from mainline rail stations - in an anonymous but functional sixth form college that could only be accessed via a tarmac moat across an extensive pond didn't exactly scream: "Pop in and see us."

The prime minister began the day with a visit to an adjacent school then made the short progress to the main venue surrounded - engulfed, even - by well-behaved pupils.

As one Labour official joked: "That's so you can't doorstep him on expenses."

In fact, in ritual fashion, questions were shouted out and, in ritual fashion, responses were not forthcoming.

But the prime minister did subject himself to a long question and answer session with an invited audience which crammed into an assembly hall.

Boxes ticked

The trouble was, they were so polite, it was Gordon Brown who had to mention the expenses row himself.

In the 1980s, in a powerful speech at a party conference, the then Labour leader Neil Kinnock signalled that he would expel the Trotskyite Militant Tendency that ran Liverpool council from party membership.

But I have never known an election launch to begin with the news that a Labour MP was to be suspended from membership of the Parliamentary party.

In Mr Brown's speech to the largely loyal masses, he certainly ticked all the policy boxes - supporting hard working families, striving for a global solution to a global financial crisis.

But the news that an absent Elliot Morley was, figuratively speaking, to be sent to Coventry (a more appropriate punishment perhaps would have been dragging him to the launch venue then leaving behind until after polling day with the tarmac drawbridge drawn up) until his expenses had been investigated not only dominated the news but dominated the brief after-launch chatter.

Public anger

The Europe Minister Caroline Flint told me she was sanguine about the lack of focus on her area of responsibility but she hoped that normal politics would soon resume. Another cabinet minister I spoke to was nowhere near so optimistic.

The prime minister did take a few questions from the small contingent of journalists and he told the BBC he was not desperately chuffed: "I'm angry when people don't abide by the rules and I'm angry when we have to take disciplinary action that has been absolutely essential".

But in a brief foray outside the compound, it seemed that those members of the public who were up and about on a weekday afternoon seemed angrier still: in a bust-a-blood-vessel sort of a way.

Derbyshire is one of just four English counties that Labour currently holds and it is the safest.

It seems polling day is all about defending existing territory not expanding it.

So by 4 June the party will have to hope that their core voters will be thinking more about the economy than expenses.

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MEP Seats

  Votes MEPs
Party % +/- % Total +/-
EPP 33.4 -1.4 264 -18
Socialists 23.2 -4.1 183 -26
Liberal 11.0 +1.6 84 +5
Green 7.4 +1.3 50 +9
Left 5.3 -0.6 34 -2
UEN 3.4 +1.6 28 +2
Ind/Dem 2.7 -1.8 21 -15
No Group 13.6 +3.4 72 +3.4
0 of 27 countries declared.

UK Total MEP Seats

Party Votes MEPs
% +/- % Total +/-
CON 27.7 1.0 *26 1
UKIP 16.5 0.3 13 1
LAB 15.7 -6.9 13 -5
LD 13.7 -1.2 11 1
GRN 8.6 2.4 2 0
BNP 6.2 1.3 2 2
SNP 2.1 0.7 2 0
PC 0.8 -0.1 1 0
OTH 8.5 2.4 0 0
SF 1 0
DUP 1 0
72 of 72 seats declared. Vote share figures exclude Northern Ireland as it has a separate electoral system to the rest of the UK
* Includes UCUNF MEP elected in Northern Ireland
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