Tony Blair's Last Hurrah
LONDON -- Americans inevitably look at the British
election results through the prism of Iraq. They see that Tony
Blair's Labor Party lost seats -- 47 is the count at this writing
-- and conclude that his forthright support of the war to topple
Saddam Hussein was the cause.
But that does not prove the proposition that Blair's
support for the war was fatal. Since the Labor Party was founded
in 1900, it had never won three elections in a row. Last week
it did, and it won a big enough majority in Parliament to remain
in power a full five years, if it likes. Last week was also the
third victory for a staunch supporter of the Iraq war beset by
a ferocious opposition and savaged by the chattering classes.
Like John Howard in Australia and George W. Bush in America last
year, Tony Blair found vindication last week.
Blair did lose some votes on Iraq, and his statements
on the war did damage his credibility. But it was already damaged.
I remember interviewing British voters in 1997, when Blair first
won, and being amazed at how much faith and hope they had in him.
It was reflected in the supersize parliamentary majorities Labor
won. But over the years, the relentless and visible spin of the
Blair press operation, the failure to deliver improvements in
the National Health Service and the transport system, the persistence
of crime (higher in London than in New York) all took a toll.
By 2001, Blair's credibility was down even as
Labor won by as great a margin as in 1997. This year, it was down
further, and not just on Iraq.
"Tony Blair had really good promise for the
future," one former Labor voter in Hammersmith and Fulham
told me this year. "But I'm afraid he's let us down."
Blair's critics on the left are quick to note
that Labor won only 35 percent of the votes, to 32 percent for
the Conservatives and 22 percent for the Liberal Democrats. But
those numbers are misleading. No one doubts that, if Britain somehow
had a runoff election, Blair would trounce Conservative Party
leader Michael Howard.
Britons vote tactically. They have just one vote
for one member of Parliament, but they use it to send messages.
In 1997 and 2001, tactical voting was aimed almost exclusively
at Conservatives: Anti-Tory voters cast almost all their votes
for whichever party, Labor or Lib Dems, seemed the Conservatives'
In safe Labor seats and some marginals, antiwar
voters swung to the antiwar Lib Dems in large numbers; Lib Dems
used to win most of their seats from Conservatives, but last week
they won most of them from Labor.
In Wimbledon, one voter told me: "We had
enormous difficulty. We discussed it endlessly." Her son
voted Lib Dem. "I wanted to see Labor with a smaller majority."
So did her husband -- she stuck with Labor. They got their way:
Conservatives won the seat, and Labor has a smaller majority.
"People wanted the return of a Labor government,
but with a reduced majority," Tony Blair conceded on election
night. But a Labor government headed where? Blair talked about
"reshaping the welfare state for the 21st century,"
but the man increasingly likely to be in charge is Chancellor
of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, whom Blair last year excluded from
campaign planning but subsequently summoned to his side when the
campaign got going.
Brown believes less in market incentives and more
in increased taxes and spending and government goals -- but also
staunchly supported Blair on Iraq. Blair has promised to retire
before the next election, and Brown is the obvious successor.
Brown's macroeconomic policies have resulted in low-inflation
growth, but that may not last forever.
Tony Blair's "new Labor" accepted the
reforms of Margaret Thatcher and made his party the voters' default
choice. Gordon Brown seems to be moving his party some distance
toward "old Labor" and his country some distance toward
the wheezing European welfare states. Will new Labor stay new?
One strategy for an opposition party in prosperous,
secular Britain would be to stand for market economics and cultural
tolerance. The Liberal Democrats could have done this, but have
opted instead for big tax increases and more public spending.
They now have 62 seats to Labor's 355, hardly a plausible opposition.
The Conservatives this year won 197 after calling
for only small tax cuts and for curbs on immigration. They made
major gains in London and seem positioned to move to larger tax
cuts and more tolerance. That could make them a plausible alternative
to a Gordon Brown Labor Party, as Britain leaves its era of faith
in Tony Blair and returns to more ordinary politics.
Copyright 2005 US News & World Report
Distributed by Creators Syndicate
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