It was no surprise when British Prime Minister Tony Blair earlier this month called an election for May 5. He could have waited a while, since British elections are usually called about a year before they have to be. The incumbents see this as good tactics. One thing about this election is surprising, though. Blair has got a fight on his hands. The odds strongly favor a third successive Labor victory, but it is going to be a closer contest than last time—and it is no longer inconceivable that the Tories, who recently looked crippled as a political force, might actually win.
Iraq is one reason why Blair is struggling—although the connection is subtler than you might think. Of course, like President Bush, Blair stands accused of lying about Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction. Again like Bush, he never outright lied, in my view. Blair almost certainly believed that the WMD or programs to produce them were there, but he manipulated and exaggerated what little was known for certain in presenting the case for war to the public. That is resented.
Had the Tories been in power, they would have taken Britain to war against Saddam and alongside the United States, just as Labor did, and the voters know that. So the harm Iraq has done to Labor's standing with the electorate rests not so much in the decision to fight. Labor's problem lies in the pattern of duplicity and insincerity that the reckless spinning of the war, before and after the fact, entailed.
Blair's Iraq policy is misunderstood in the United States. He is not the firm-jawed man of principle he is made out to be in America. The real Blair is one part sanctimonious phony and two parts political adding machine. He backed President Bush over Iraq not on principle—his views on international law and the United Nations were instantly discarded—but because his vanity and his devoutly longed-for standing as a great prime minister could not tolerate walking away from a fight (something Margaret Thatcher never did).
Remember, too, that the initial appeal of Tony Blair's new-model Labor Party resided almost entirely in its promise of fair dealing and straight talking. The party's triumph in 1997, its first win in more than 20 years, was built on its indictment of the Tories as the party of "sleaze" (the tabloid newspapers' favorite word of that era). It helped that the Tories' reputation for economic competence lay in pieces after the pound was ejected from Europe's exchange-rate mechanism in 1992. A series of petty scandals (as they now seem) compounded that damage by impugning the integrity of the party and its very tired-looking leaders.
Labor seemed to know what it was talking about on the economy. At least as important, Tony Blair was fresh, idealistic, and honest. Such a contrast to the Tories. This smiling young fellow could look into the camera and say, "Trust me," and, instead of laughing, people did. He had the early Clinton touch. It was an irresistible combination, and Labor won by a landslide. The Tories subsequently caved in completely, and the momentum carried Blair comfortably through a second election victory in 2001.
Thanks partly to good judgment and partly to luck, Labor's newly earned reputation for basic economic competence is secure after two terms. But the freshness, idealism, and honesty have gone. Blair himself has aged a good 15 years in the past eight: He looks tired and demoralized, and that is the least of his worries. The inquiries into the handling of Iraq intelligence and the fight with the BBC over David Kelly (the weapons scientist who cast doubt on the government's integrity, and who subsequently killed himself) left the prime minister and his advisers badly scarred. Blair would no longer dare to say, "Trust me."
Helping to keep the dissembling and misdirection over Iraq at the front of people's minds is the government's solid record elsewhere of elevating presentation over substance. For the most part—and again this is widely understood by the electorate—Blairism offers no distinctive new approach to government, no new answers to the age-old questions of politics. Blair made Labor electable in the mid-1990s by repudiating socialism, by moving the party a good way to the right, and by dressing mostly old-fashioned soft-conservative policies in up-to-the-minute "New Labor" clothes. That was good for the country and good for the party, but it was also dishonest. It called for a great deal of spin and evasion: Why New Labor's policies are not just warmed-over conservatism (which they are), how Labor remains true to its egalitarian roots (which it does not), and so forth.
In 1997, the new government even promised to hold public spending for several years at levels planned by the outgoing Conservative administration (a promise it duly kept), rather than to embark right away on expanded programs, as previous Labor governments had done. Conservative themes of choice and competition came constantly to the fore. The party also promised to keep taxes low (a promise subsequently broken in this case, at least in spirit, but the thought counted for something). In short, Labor has spent the past eight years denying its new political identity. For a while, that was fine. In fact, it was exactly what voters wanted: cautious conservative policies, pleasantly wrapped in warm, caring words. And so many of them: words, words, words. Finally, voters seem to be tiring of it all. Blair, once so popular, once so trusted, is now regarded, not just by Tory voters but also by Labor's own supporters, as a hollow waffler.
Blair's bitter falling-out with his second-in-command, Gordon Brown, the chancellor of the exchequer, reinforces this perception. Brown believes he should have been handed the leadership by now. He thinks he made a deal when he stepped aside to let Blair take the party's top job unopposed. Voters know that the two just hate each other. The body language when they appear together, which is all the time during the campaign, is horribly funny—like a married couple fast approaching divorce, keeping up appearances, but so embittered that if either says something, however innocuous, it drives the other insane. Still, the feigned camaraderie comes, in public, the back-slapping, the mutual congratulation, the words of praise through viciously gritted teeth. Nobody buys it. Why do they bother?
More important, why is this grisly performance likely to end, after all, in another Labor victory? For two main reasons: The Conservative revival was too long in coming, and Britain's electoral system has an increasingly pronounced pro-Labor bias.
Michael Howard, the Tories' leader, has proved to be a great success. He was a minister in Margaret Thatcher's governments, and had been regarded as an unappealing hard-liner—a throwback to a harsher school of conservatism, no longer in demand. But he has done better than expected, scoring some wounding hits on Labor, mainly by giving voice to popular discontent with the government's evasive, self-righteous, prevaricating style. The problem is that the Tories, so long preoccupied with their own internal struggles, have no encompassing policy message: They lack the vision thing, you might say. Because of Labor's earlier seizure of Tory territory, they differ only at the margins from the government on most issues—and they have yet to regain the public's confidence on economic policy. Disliked though it may be, the government can point to its eight-year record of stability.
Bearing all of this in mind, the Tories would do well to match Labor in the popular vote on May 5. Unfortunately for them, matching the Labor vote would not nearly be enough to match Labor in seats in the House of Commons. Safe Labor constituencies tend to have fewer voters in them than safe Tory constituencies; also, the turnout tends to be higher in Tory constituencies. Therefore, votes cast in typical Tory constituencies are worth less than votes cast in typical Labor constituencies in terms of the balance of seats in Parliament. Adding to this, Labor votes tend to be more concentrated in marginal seats; Tory votes are more evenly spread out. Again, in terms of the balance of power in the Commons, this dilutes the Tory vote.
The figures are startling. If the popular vote divided equally between Labor and the Conservatives, Labor would win 352 seats in the Commons, and the Tories would get just 222; allowing for seats won by other parties, Labor would be returned to office with an absolute majority of 58 seats. For the Tories to win even a single-figure absolute majority of Commons seats, which would allow them to form a government, they need to lead Labor in the popular vote by a colossal 11 percentage points.
Labor may be struggling by its own recent standards, but not badly enough to lose—not yet, anyway. Most likely, Blair will be back as prime minister, soon to hand the reins of power over to Brown. In the meantime, this election is going to be a lot more interesting than Labor would wish.