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.
Blair’s beliefs are simple: he thinks Britain is an unfair society where there are too many barriers to social mobility. He thinks entrepreneurial talent is in short supply, and, in that respect, wishes Britain were more like the United States. But he also thinks that too many children are brought up in spiritual poverty as well as in economic deprivation by parents who teach them neither the habits of hard work nor respect for the rights of their neighbors. His instincts are conservative and middle-class. After the 1997 election, he complained that beggars made respectable people feel uncomfortable. After the recent election, his first initiative was to think of ways of discouraging teenagers from wearing hooded sweatshirts in shopping malls. Some commentators observe that Mrs. Thatcher also wanted to make the economy faster, leaner, and more competitive while encouraging a return to “Victorian values.”
This criticism misses its target. Blair readily admits that he admires Mrs. Thatcher and her uncompromising approach to modernizing the British economy. He has no more sympathy than she had for trade unions that protect their members’ jobs at the price of low productivity and economic decline. Nonetheless, he could never have uttered her notorious claim that “there is no such thing as society.” He believes much more firmly than she does that we are our brothers’ keepers, and that we should be judged by how well the worst-off among us are doing. But he has no use for traditional Labour slogans; he never mentions class war, or appeals to class solidarity. Blair once claimed that “we are all middle-class now,” and that the British are driven by what he calls “aspirational” values. What in his own eyes makes him a progressive is that he cares for the worst-off and their thwarted aspirations in ways that few Conservatives do.
Blair was not only an unlikely leader for a party so attached to its history; he was an accidental leader. It was only the heart attack that killed his predecessor, the much-loved Scots lawyer John Smith, that created a vacancy in the leadership of the party. When he died in 1994, Smith was only in his mid-fifties and might have been expected to fight and win the 1997 general election. Blair’s career up to that point had been impressive, but not such as to make him the obvious choice for leader. He entered Parliament at the general election of 1983, when he was just thirty. He had fought for a hopeless seat at a by-election a year earlier; he did not attract many votes, but he was cheerful and engaging, and a few months later he secured the Labour nomination for a safe constituency: the coal-mining district of Sedgefield, in County Durham.
The 1983 general election was a disaster; the party fought on a manifesto described as the longest suicide note in electoral history. It was committed to nationalization of large industries, nuclear disarmament, and withdrawal from the European Union, all lost causes. The country had elected Mrs. Thatcher in 1979 after the so-called “Winter of Discontent” when public service workers went on strike, leaving garbage to pile up in every street, and in Liverpool leaving the dead unburied because the municipal gravediggers were on strike. In 1983, Britain was still in no mood to elect a Labour Party that was unable to control the trade unions; and while the Labour Party embraced unilateral nuclear disarmament, Mrs. Thatcher had just won the Falklands War.
It was a bad moment to be an ambitious Labour politician; but Blair allied himself with Neil Kinnock, the new leader of the party, and quickly moved up the hierarchy. Kinnock was a modernizer—he wanted to reduce the power of left-wing trade unions, to get still-powerful Trotskyites out of local Labour Party branches, and to make the party capable of managing a modern economy. Blair shared an office in the House of Commons with Gordon Brown, a congenial newly elected MP from Edinburgh. Brown knew the Labour Party inside out, and had been an ardent politician since his student days, but he was unusual in Labour circles in having spent a lot of time in the United States where he acquired a reverence for American business enterprise. He and Blair agreed on the way to modernize both the Labour Party and Britain; their styles and backgrounds were very different, but intellectually they were as one. They still are; asked during the election what Britain would look like under a Brown premiership, Brown replied, “more like America.” Brown longs for British workers to match the productivity of their American counterparts.
John Smith succeeded Neil Kinnock after the Labour Party’s fourth general election defeat in 1992. A heart attack killed him in May 1994. The longest-running soap opera in British political history began immediately. Blair was a credible candidate; he was a competent member of the “Shadow Cabinet”—the opposition team whose task was to harry the government in the House of Commons and to devise a credible program to put before the voters. But Gordon Brown had a stronger grasp of economic policy, and he had been closer to John Smith. He was “Shadow Chancellor,” that is, the opposition spokesman on economic affairs and in the obvious position from which to make a bid for the leadership, as John Smith had done before him.
A general election had to be held no later than the spring of 1997, but the party had been out of power for fifteen years. Virtually nobody had ever served in government; indeed, virtually nobody had run anything. Labour members of Parliament had been lawyers, journalists, teachers, and lecturers, or party apparatchiks. This gave Brown and Blair an opening. But they had to be careful not to split the modernizers’ votes in the election for the leader of the party; one of the two had to stand aside and give the other a free hand. Stories abound of how Brown was persuaded that he was the less attractive candidate—to the party, and more importantly to the voters. Not the least of Brown’s handicaps was that he was Scots, and it was widely thought that Kinnock has been unpopular because he was Welsh, and Smith unappealing to the English because he was Scots.
Discussions ended in a famous meeting in the spring of 1997 at the Granita—a restaurant in North London—at which Blair either did (according to Brown’s friends) or did not (according to Blair’s friends) agree that if Brown stood aside, he would have the leadership, whether in five years or ten years, or after two terms of a Labour government, or whenever. The friends of Brown claim that Blair ratted on the “Granita agreement”; the friends of Blair claim there was no agreement to rat on. What is clear is that for the past three years, Brown has thought it was his turn to run the country.
Blair immediately did something very astonishing, and the key to much that he has done since. The year after he became leader, he told the party that it had to drop its commitment to the public ownership of major industries. This was the famous “Clause Four” of the party’s constitution; a Labour government was supposed to secure to the workers by hand and brain the fruits of their labor through the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange. As a guide to economic policy, it had been a dead letter for years, but for Labour supporters it was like the doctrine of the Resurrection; they had no clear idea what the doctrine meant, but to renounce a belief in it was to abandon the faith. It was a “third rail” issue; to touch it was death.
Blair was either bold or foolhardy; if he had lost he would have been humiliated. He won, and the modernizers in the party won with him. It gave him an ascendancy over the party that no Labour leader had previously enjoyed. It may also have given him a dangerous belief that he could govern Britain even against his own party. The party renamed itself New Labour, took a red rose as its logo, and adopted “New Labour for a New Britain” as its campaign motto. Before long it took power. Mrs. Thatcher had been elected in 1979 because Labour was economically incompetent and the Conservatives were more trusted as managers. In 1992, the Conservatives lost their reputation for competence overnight, and have yet to regain it.
In 1990, the Conservative government had decided to join the European Union’s Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), the precursor of the euro. The exchange rate was too high; everyone became convinced that devaluation was inevitable; George Soros’s speculation against the pound made him £1 billion. The government extracted itself from the ERM at a cost estimated at between £3 and £5 billion in losses on the foreign currency markets. Leaving the ERM was in fact a blessing to the economy; an uninterrupted run of steady growth and low inflation continued for four years under the cheerful supervision of Kenneth Clarke, the Conservative chancellor. But the embarrassment over the pound was a great disaster for the Conservative Party, whose support in the country collapsed, while Labour’s surged.
Blair won the 1997 general election with a majority of 179 over all other parties combined and 253 over the Conservatives. The Conservatives lost in ways that boded ill for the future; they lost seats when Labour supporters voted for the Liberal Democrats to keep out the Conservatives and they lost more when Liberal Democrats returned the favor in constituencies where Labour was well placed. That informal alliance held up in 2001 and gave Labour much the same majority—247 over the Conservatives and 167 overall. Now that the party had ostentatiously abandoned the class war, nationalization, pacifism, and other traditional commitments, Labour’s support was not passionate; only 71 percent of registered voters turned out in 1997 and 59 percent in 2001. Blair’s 2001 majority rested on the support of only a quarter of eligible voters. But three quarters of eligible voters had no desire to vote for the Conservatives; and three quarters of eligible voters have no desire to do so now.
The first erosion of trust in Blair himself started almost immediately after the 1997 election. Some of it was a matter of style: he seemed too fond of the company of celebrities, and too eager to take foreign holidays at their expense. Labour’s effectiveness in putting spin on news stories began to make the public uneasy. Some doubts arose from a failure to deliver on high-sounding promises. Blair’s enthusiasm for the Millennium Dome looked foolish when it turned out to be a complete flop. Meanwhile, roads remained congested, the privatized railways were expensive and slow, the health service was plagued by delays. The first accusations of untruthfulness were provoked when Blair appeared to be doing favors for Bernie Eccleston, the owner of the Formula One motor racing franchise. He had given Labour a million pounds and wanted the government to block a European law that forbade tobacco advertising in sport—Formula One racing being heavily dependent on such advertising. Blair may well have done nothing wrong, but his self-justification, “I think I’m a pretty straight kinda guy,” has haunted him since.
In part, Blair is the victim of a general skepticism about the honesty of politicians. One oddity of Michael Howard’s attacks was that they damaged Howard as much as their target; voters were ready to believe that Blair told many untruths and half-truths, but they distrusted Michael Howard even more than Blair. Blair’s deeper problem was the damage he suffered from the Hutton Inquiry in the summer of 2003 and the Butler Inquiry in the early spring of 2004. Both happened because of the war in Iraq; neither was directly concerned with the merits of the war. The government tried to limit the damage by narrowing the scope of both inquiries. Lord Hutton—a respected, if conservative, Northern Ireland judge—was asked to focus only on the question whether the BBC had been right to broadcast a report alleging that Alistair Campbell—the prime minister’s spokesman, press officer, and media adviser—had “sexed up” intelligence reports to make it appear that Saddam Hussein could threaten British forces with WMD “within 45 minutes.”
Hutton found that the BBC was wrong. The public decided that Hutton’s report was a whitewash; more importantly, they concluded from weeks of public evidence that the government’s tinkering with cautious and qualified intelligence reports about WMD amounted to “sexing up” the information given the public, no matter who did it. Blair was a lawyer, and what he had wanted from intelligence was, in effect, a brief for war. Lord Butler—a former head of the civil service—was more damning. He held up to public gaze Blair’s casual, often secretive style of decision-making; the public concluded that Blair had been intent on going to war alongside George Bush and had never much minded whether the evidence suggested that Saddam Hussein was a threat or not. Butler said that no one had literally lied. The public concluded at the time that if Blair was not dishonest, he was lacking in judgment; but most people have increasingly thought he was dishonest. Before the war he said he was not intent on regime change. Since the failure to discover WMD he has justified the invasion as regime change. Either he was lying to begin with, or he is lying now.
Even though the events in Iraq it-self were not salient in the public mind, Blair’s defense of the war has damaged his credibility beyond re-pair. Even defenders of the war do not flinch from calling him dishon-est.2 Combined with the widespread—though still a minority—revulsion at the illiberalism of the government’s anti-terrorism legislation, it was enough to cost the government much of its majority. But, according to the polls, the widespread distrust of Blair did not amount to a considered judgment on British foreign policy; the public also believes that maintaining good relations with the American government is not in itself foolish, and Blair would have found it harder to pursue his own humanitarian objectives in international affairs without American help such as he got in Kosovo.
The day after the election, Blair said he had heard the public’s criticisms and was listening; nobody seems impressed. What everyone wants to know is when and how Gordon Brown will succeed him. With a parliamentary majority of sixty-seven, Blair seems vulnerable to rebellions from backbench MPs. In practice, rebellious backbenchers will not bring down a Labour government by allying themselves—as they would have to—with Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Ulster Unionists. The histrionic accusations of many of his critics, such as Clare Short, the former minister for development, and Robin Cook, the former foreign minister, are widely mocked as the sour grapes of former cabinet members. A Blair departure sparked by insurrection on the Labour left won’t happen. Old Labour is dead.
Blair has said he will resign before the next election, which means before 2010; and he has said he expects to be succeeded by Gordon Brown. Unless he finds his critics are making his life miserable or the economy faces a catastrophe during the next three years, Blair will surely wish to wait until 2008, when he overtakes Mrs. Thatcher as the longest-serving twentieth-century prime minister and can hand over power. But he could resign at any moment.
How different will a Gordon Brown government be? It would be utterly different in style but almost identical in policy. On Iraq, Brown kept quiet until halfway through the election; but when asked directly if he was fully behind the prime minister over Iraq, he uttered one word: “yes.” Like Blair, Brown admires American industry and business, but unlike Blair he knows America well, having studied economics at MIT; most summers he spends his holidays on Cape Cod. Reflexive anti-Americanism is a Labour tradition, but it is not shared by Brown. He has spent eight years mocking Europe for its economic lethargy, and an alliance between him, Chirac, and Schröder is not at all likely.
Unlike Blair, Brown is steeped in Labour tradition; he spent his twenties writing utopian essays on the need for a socialist transformation of Scotland, and when he speaks to the party faithful he sounds like the authentic voice of Old Labour. But he has been a successful chancellor of the Exchequer because he has behaved exactly as a Conservative chancellor would have done. His first act in 1997 was to give the Bank of England independent power to set interest rates. This handed the main instrument of economic control to the central bankers who for a hundred years had been demonized by Old Labour. It was the single most successful action of his tenure.
It is a safe bet that New Labour will outlast Blair. It’s an equally safe bet that a Brown government would concentrate not on the prime minister’s personality, but on policies to improve the lot of children, to get those without jobs back to work, and to create a better-educated and better-trained labor force. The way Brown runs the Treasury suggests the government will not be more open, it will not be more liberal, and it will not be less given to “spin.” But, it will—for a while—be very popular with a public that has tired of Blair’s cult of personality and no longer trusts his word.
—May 25, 2005
June 23, 2005
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. ↩
Nick Cohen’s Pretty Straight Guys (Granta, 2005), for example, is an entertaining chronicle of New Labour’s assorted misrepresentations which ends with a defense of the ejection of Saddam Hussein. ↩