Magazine article Newsweek

The Politics of Post-Affluence: Tony Blair's Winning Formula in Britain: Half Alan Greenspan, Half Oprah Winfrey

Magazine article Newsweek

The Politics of Post-Affluence: Tony Blair's Winning Formula in Britain: Half Alan Greenspan, Half Oprah Winfrey

Article excerpt

It's been a rough election season for Britain's ruling Labour Party. On the day that it released its campaign manifesto, televisions were buzzing with a more vivid image: Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott punching out a protester who had thrown an egg at him. Then Tony Blair himself was accosted at one of his carefully choreographed photo ops by a woman who complained bitterly about the National Health Service. (More recently he squirmed through a tirade from a student about high tuition bills.) Another senior Labour minister, Jack Straw, was jeered while addressing a group of police officers. And after two weeks of these assorted embarrassments, the party's lead in the polls rose slightly.

That the Labour Party is certain to be returned to power on June 7 is not surprising. A competent government presiding over peaceful and prosperous times is usually given a second term. What is striking about this election, and important beyond Britain, is the Conservative Party's utter helplessness. Whatever it says--cut taxes, cut spending, curb immigration, stay out of Europe--either backfires or somehow doesn't gather steam against the juggernaut that is Tony Blair.

Blair's success is rooted in New Labour's steadfast move to the political center. "Frankly, we are nothing like the Labour Party of old," said Peter Mandelson, one of the politicians most responsible for this shift. A senior Tory put it more bluntly: "We are running against a Labour Party leader who is essentially a conservative." Its new manifesto moves Labour one more big step to the right: it suggests privatizing the delivery of public services. It's good policy but even better politics, since it becomes even more difficult for the right to outflank it.

But Blair utterly dominates the scene for another, broader reason: he is the politician perfectly attuned to the age we live in. Political scientists distinguish between two kinds of issues, "positional issues" and "valence issues." The first are ones on which the public has sharp, divisive and incompatible views. (Think of policy toward the Soviet Union in the 1980s.) The second are ones on which voters broadly agree on goals and simply want to figure out the best way to achieve them (good environment, health care and public services). The mood of the British public--and, indeed, the public in most Western nations these days--is defined almost entirely by valence issues ("valence" means the ability to unite). With both sides embracing the market and no great foreign-policy divides, people want politics to be about pragmatic solutions to problems, not ideological blood feuds. Blair appeals in this atmosphere, because he governs and campaigns not by engaging in political divisions but by transcending them. …

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