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 British history—provoked calls for electoral reform. These were naturally brushed aside by Tony Blair: he is the beneficiary, not the victim, of the mismatch between votes and seats in Parliament.
The two obvious questions are, what happened and what will happen next, or more elaborately: Was the reduced Labour majority a vote against Tony Blair and, if so, was it a vote against the war in Iraq? How soon will Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the Exchequer, be prime minister; and how different will he be? The campaign was certainly fought to an unusual degree on the question whether Tony Blair could be trusted to run the country, perhaps even more on the question whether he could be trusted, period.
A campaign focused largely on the honesty of one man is unusual in British politics. Personality always matters to some extent; Mrs. Thatcher provoked Labour voters and inspired Tory voters, as did her colleagues, including Norman Tebbit, once described by Michael Foot as “a semi-house-trained polecat.” But British voters generally vote for (or against) a party rather than a person. Leaders matter when they remake a party in their own image, as Mrs. Thatcher and Tony Blair both did; but party allegiance is the key to electoral success. The folklore holds that in a typical constituency, the identity of the candidate makes a difference of about a thousand votes in an electorate of 70,000. The impact of the national leader on the local vote is unquantifiable, but ever since Winston Churchill lost the general election of 1945 to the gray and unassuming Clement Attlee, it has been assumed that what matters is party allegiance.
This year’s breach with normality is easily explained. The only effective weapon the Conservative Party possessed was the public’s distrust of the prime minister. Michael Howard ran the Conservatives’ election campaign on one theme: Tony Blair is a liar—a serial liar about Iraq, and a liar about practically everything else. It was the tactic favored by his Australian adviser, Lynton Crosby, who used a similar strategy to great effect in his native country eight years ago to undermine the Labour government of Paul Keating and get the conservative (“Liberal” by label) John Howard elected.
It was the Conservatives’ only resource even though many Conservatives disliked the tactic. Conservatives had no clear view about how to lower taxes and were reduced to saying that the prime minister lies about taxes; the Conservatives are not trusted to administer the National Health Service, and were reduced to saying that the prime minister had lied about its condition; their position on limiting immigration was indistinguishable from the government’s, so they were reduced to saying that the prime minister habitually lies about the numbers of illegal immigrants entering the country.
Above all, they claimed that Blair had lied about the reasons for going to war in Iraq. It was all Michael Howard could say about the war. Unlike Charles Kennedy and the Liberal Democrats, Michael Howard and the great majority of the Conservative Party have always been in favor of the war; Howard says he would still vote for it, even knowing that the intelligence on which Blair relied was wrong and the legal advice on which he relied was shaky.
But no matter Howard’s own difficulties, it was always likely that embarrassing documents about Iraq would be leaked during the campaign—and they were. Eight days before the election the government was forced to publish the attorney general’s note of March 7, 2003, expressing doubts about the legality of the war—although ten days later, on March 17, he officially justified it. On May 1 of this year, the Sunday Times published the Downing Street memorandum of July 23, 2002, which showed beyond all doubt that Blair knew that the Bush government was determined on war with Iraq eight months before the event and that the consensus of a meeting of Blair and his top security advisers was that they “should work on the assumption that the UK would take part in any military action.”1 So the question whether the election was a vote against Blair and, if so, whether it was a vote against him because of Iraq becomes inescapable.
Iraq mattered a lot, but it mattered indirectly; among other things, it allowed Howard to engage in the kind of negative campaigning that George H.W. Bush used to such effect against the Democrats in 1988. The closeness of the final vote—with two percentage points separating Labour and the Conservatives—reflected the largest failure of Labour supporters to go to the polls for many years. During the campaign, no party moved more than a point or two in the opinion polls; Labour was four to eight points ahead of the Conservatives. But one early poll suggested that although Labour had a clear lead among all eligible voters, the Conservatives had a lead of 5 percent among those who were certain to vote. The implications were obvious: Labour must get reluctant supporters to vote and the Conservatives must undermine confidence in Blair and keep Labour supporters at home.
The government reminded the voters that among its other accomplishments, the economy was in good shape after twelve years of steady growth and high employment rates; that the health service was getting steadily better; that primary education had been much improved. If Blair and the Labour officials had been able to confine discussion to their domestic record, all would have been well. They might reasonably have thought they could do it. According to the polls, the situation in Iraq itself was not one of the public’s main concerns. The British army suffered many casualties for thirty years in Northern Ireland; only one British soldier has been killed in Iraq since the beginning of the year. And the effect of television coverage is that the voters think of the war as a struggle between the American army and Sunni insurgents.
Arguments about alternatives to the actual course of events—whether Hans Blix and his team of inspectors should have been given the additional time that he asked for and that the French and other nations wanted him to have—continue to fascinate journalists and academics, but no longer seem of much interest to the public. Before the war began, they did: in February 2003, almost 90 percent of the British public wanted to allow more time for inspections. Two years later, the war is an unpopular fact. Most people think it was “a mistake,” even if it may have achieved some good. But it is not an obtrusive fact. According to all the polls, taxes, health care, the future of publicly funded pensions, and the quality of education all mattered to the voters more than the Iraq war itself. Iraq mattered because it was the most striking evidence of Blair’s evasiveness, deception, or worse.
Even given the vulnerability of Blair’s record on Iraq, however, the Conservatives’ main slogan, “Send a Message to Blair,” would have made no sense if the politics of the past eight years had not turned on Blair: Tony Blair the architect of New Labour; Tony Blair the great modernizer; Tony Blair the best friend of football players and pop stars; Tony Blair the leader perennially under threat from his former best friend and now bitter rival Gordon Brown; and Tony Blair the self-proclaimed savior of the oppressed in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Iraq.
Blair has always been an unlikely leader of the Labour Party. His convictions are Christian and humanitarian, not socialist; he has no sentimental ties to the labor movement from which the Labour Party sprang, and on whose financial and organizational support it has for a hundred years depended. He is not interested in the history of his party, and unlike almost all his colleagues, he took no interest in politics as a teenager or at Oxford. He certainly has convictions; but he is not very articulate about them, and he has disappointed more than one serious thinker who tried to persuade Blair that he should advocate “the stakeholder society” or the “Third Way,” or the “communitarian project,” only to find that some new formulation better served Blair’s needs, and the thinker was out in the cold.
James Naughtie's The Accidental American (Public Affairs, 2004) gives a not unsympathetic account of Blair's predicament, although Naughtie does not mention the secret Downing Street memo of July 23, 2002, recently published in these pages with a commentary by Mark Danner (The New York Review, June 9, 2005). Naughtie writes that Blair knew from his meeting with Bush in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002 that Bush was bent on invading Iraq. He pressed Bush to obtain UN approval for an invasion, thinking he would face a widespread rebellion in the Labour Party if he could not persuade its members that the war was justified by the UN Resolution 1441 of November 2003, providing for sending in inspectors, as well as previous resolutions (678 and 687) authorizing force after the invasion of Iraq in 1991, making the cessation of hostilities dependent on disarmament by Saddam Hussein. A continuing problem for Blair was that the UK ambassador to the UN stated in November 2003 that a second resolution would be needed before the coalition attacked—a statement that was later simply disregarded. The documents confirmed what many suspected—that as the chief of MI6 put it on returning from Washington, "the intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy" of removing Saddam. ↩
James Naughtie’s The Accidental American (Public Affairs, 2004) gives a not unsympathetic account of Blair’s predicament, although Naughtie does not mention the secret Downing Street memo of July 23, 2002, recently published in these pages with a commentary by Mark Danner (The New York Review, June 9, 2005). Naughtie writes that Blair knew from his meeting with Bush in Crawford, Texas, in April 2002 that Bush was bent on invading Iraq. He pressed Bush to obtain UN approval for an invasion, thinking he would face a widespread rebellion in the Labour Party if he could not persuade its members that the war was justified by the UN Resolution 1441 of November 2003, providing for sending in inspectors, as well as previous resolutions (678 and 687) authorizing force after the invasion of Iraq in 1991, making the cessation of hostilities dependent on disarmament by Saddam Hussein. A continuing problem for Blair was that the UK ambassador to the UN stated in November 2003 that a second resolution would be needed before the coalition attacked—a statement that was later simply disregarded. The documents confirmed what many suspected—that as the chief of MI6 put it on returning from Washington, “the intelligence and the facts were being fixed around the policy” of removing Saddam. ↩