Britain's Labour Party wins third term despite Blair
J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)
The controversial Iraq War has strongly influenced the UK general election, seriously undermining Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was one of the staunchest supporters of President George W. Bush's Iraq policy. Although Labour have been returned to office, their majority is sharply reduced, and they come back into government on just 36% of the vote, the lowest ever percentage in British electoral history. The Conservatives got 33% and the anti-war Liberal Democrats shot up to 23%, getting their biggest number of seats since 1923.
In 1997, Blair had a majority of 178 and in 2001 he managed 167. This time projections estimate it will be about 66.
The result almost certainly means that Blair will not serve a full term as Prime Minister. He has already conceded that Iraq seriously harmed his party's standing. At least 50 strongly anti-war Labour MPs have been reelected, meaning Blair will find it difficult to manage his rebellious party with such a sharply reduced majority.
When the UK general election was called, the ruling Labour Party expected to be re-elected with another big majority. The British economy is strong, the opposition parties relatively weak, and Labour is widely considered to have done a good job in office. However, as has already happened in Italy and Spain, the political fallout from the Iraq war has yet again cast a dark shadow over another European election.
Labour's main electoral problem was Blair's deep unpopularity. His reputation suffered a severe battering due to his staunch support for the US-led invasion of Iraq. Blair was once seen as his party's greatest asset, but this time around was considered its biggest liability. Even so, his party's unprecedented third successive poll victory will ensure that history will be kinder, remembering Blair as the Labour leader who gave them a historic election hat trick.
However, in present day political reality, the two defeated opposition parties, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, are pleased with far better results than they could have expected under normal circumstances when the UK economy is so buoyant. The so called Iraq factor appears to have saved them from what should have been a crushing defeat.
Disillusionment over Iraq war hurt Labour
Until the ballots were counted, the election outcome was uncertain because many core Labour supporters, deeply disillusioned over Iraq, told pollsters they would either abstain from voting or switch allegiance to the anti-war Liberal Democrats. The effect of this trend on key marginal seats made predicting the final result almost impossible. Even though Labour enjoyed a national poll lead, tactical voting patterns lost them many seats they would normally expect to have kept. A lot of Labour lawmakers who lost their seats openly blamed Blair's Iraq policy.
The surprise of the election was the incredibly strong showing of the anti-war Liberal Democrats in many normally safe Labour seats. They gave Labour a real run for their money and managed to pick up many more seats than the pollsters predicted. Blair himself won comfortably in his own seat, but faced an uncomfortable challenged from an independent candidate whose young son was killed in Iraq.
One of the most astounding results was the stunning victory of the fiercely anti-war candidate George Galloway, who stood in one of Labour's safest seats, and against the odds won. Galloway was a former Labour MP, who Blair expelled from the party for his outspoken criticism of the war. In a powerful victory speech, he attacked Blair, saying, "All the people you killed, all the lies you have told, will come back to haunt you. The best thing the Labour Party could do is sack you tomorrow morning."
Vote for Blair to get Brown
Pre-election polls indicated that if Blair stepped down before the ballot and was replaced by his popular Finance Minister, Gordon Brown, the party would have easily romped home to victory. However, the same polls also indicted that Labour would still probably win under Blair. So, the Prime Minister refused to quit, knowing there was little his party could do about it so close to an election. An internal bloodbath over the leadership in the run-up to an election would have been political suicide.
However, party pressure on Blair did force him to publicly declare that if he won, he would not serve a full term as Prime Minister. He also strongly indicated that Brown would take over from him at some future point.
To further calm party's nerves, and attract wavering Labour voters, during the campaign Blair constantly appeared with Brown at his side. Wherever Blair went, so did Brown. The premiership effectively became a two-man show. This was seen as an attempt to emphasize that Brown would eventually take over from Blair.
Labour strategists aimed to persuade disillusioned supporters that they should "vote for Blair to get Brown." On election day, several Labour-supporting newspapers rammed home this message with pictures of Blair and Brown side by side on their front covers. You could not fail to get the message that you were getting two for the price of one vote.
Brown's face, not Blair's, appeared on the vast majority of Labour Party election literature. On the Saturday before the poll, Brown told the media that he would never allow the UK to go to war without putting the matter properly before parliament. This was interpreted as a strong signal to Labour supporters that a Brown premiership would be more consensual and less presidential than Blair's.
Brown is an extremely popular figure whose reputation was not damaged by the controversial decision to go to war, which is largely seen as Blair's personal responsibility. After suffering such losses, it is almost certain than Brown will soon inherit Blair's crown.
Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. A different version of this article
first appeared in Asia Times Online on 6 May 2005, http://www.atimes.com,
and is republished with permission.