Waiting for Gordon Brown

Between 1979 and 1992, the British Labour Party lost four general elections in a row. When Labour won in 1997, the party had been out of power for eighteen years. Now, by racking up a third consecutive general election victory on May 5, Labour can hope to exile the Conservative Party in the wilderness for the same demoralizing two decades. Never before has Labour governed for two full terms, let alone for three with every expectation of a fourth.

On May 5, the Conservatives won 197 seats to Labour’s 356—fewer seats than Labour had won in the devastating election of 1983 when Mrs. Thatcher secured a majority of 144, partly in the aftermath of the Falklands War. A week after the results were in, the Conservative leader, Michael Howard, told his party that unless they absorbed the lessons of defeat, they would never hold power again. If in coming elections Conservatives gain no more seats than they did in this one, they won’t have a majority in Parliament until 2025.

Still, when the results were declared on May 6, Labour politicians looked as though they had suffered a shattering defeat, and Conservative politicians were rushing to congratulate Howard. The Liberal Democrats’ leader, Charles Kennedy, was nowhere to be seen; his party had been expected to benefit from the fact that Labour and Conservative voters were unhappy with their own parties for a host of different reasons; but it did not. The Liberal Democrats gained some seats from Labour, lost a few seats to the Conservatives, emerging with a total of ten more seats, and that was it. What everyone concentrated on was that the Labour majority over all other parties combined had been cut from 167 to 67. The fact that Labour still has 356 members of Parliament to the Conservatives’ 197—the most important fact about the results—was ignored.

During the campaign, the voters were described as apathetic and divided; on polling day, they lived up to expectations. Turnout was less than 62 percent. Of those who voted, 36 percent voted Labour, 34 percent Conservative, 22 percent Liberal Democrat, and the remainder for a variety of parties from the Greens to the ultra-nationalist British National Party. The father of a soldier killed in Iraq ran for office in Tony Blair’s constituency of Sedgefield, and took 10 percent of the vote; George Galloway, who had been expelled from the Labour Party after he urged British troops in Iraq to mutiny, defeated the Labour candidate in the East End of London on a platform of respect for Muslims.

Commentators seeking reasons to be depressed about the state of British democracy noted that Labour was supported by only 22 percent of the eligible voters—but had a big enough majority to govern for five years. The fact that Labour has almost twice as many members of Parliament as the Conservatives on the strength of a 2 percent advantage in votes—one of the narrowest electoral margins in …

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