Magazine article The New Yorker

BLAIR'S BUSHY TAIL; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

BLAIR'S BUSHY TAIL; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Article excerpt

The results of the United Kingdom's general election a week ago last Thursday bring to mind a crowded neighborhood pub half an hour before closing time. The noise level is high, the patrons' moods range from giddy to morose, and the bar is covered with imperial-pint glasses that are half full. Or are they half empty?

The half-full (or more like three-quarters-full) view is that the election represents a signal victory for Tony Blair and his party. Blair was already the first Labour Prime Minister to succeed in serving out two full terms. Labour has now for the first time won its third election in a row--not in spite of Blair's leadership but because of it, specifically because of his farsighted strategy of dropping red-flag-and-cloth-cap "socialism" in favor of a streamlined, market-friendly version of modern European social democracy. In 1983--the year Blair won his seat in Parliament, and also the year Labour's musty platform (nationalization of industry, withdrawal from Europe, unilateral disarmament) was dubbed "the longest suicide note in history"--no one imagined that Labour would be where it is today. For sheer success at the ballot box, Blair's only rival in living memory has been Margaret Thatcher, another three-straight winner. But Blair's achievement is arguably greater. Starting from a considerably weaker historical base, "New Labour" has enjoyed an average majority of a hundred and thirty-seven in the six-hundred-plus-seat House of Commons; the Conservative Party's average majority under Thatcher was ninety-six. And Blair, after eight years as Prime Minister, is still one of the youngest people at the table, whether the meeting is of the G-8 heads of state or his own Cabinet. He turned fifty-two the day after the election.

The half-empty view is that the election, if not exactly a defeat for Blair, was about as close as he could get without losing his job. Labour's share of the vote barely topped the one-third mark--35.2 per cent, to the Tories' 32.3 and the Liberal Democrats' 22. (The remaining 10.5 went to regional and protest parties.) For the first time, the victors were outnumbered by stay-at-home voters (39 per cent)--unremarkable here, but a shocker there. Labour's showing was a winning party's worst since the Reform Act of 1832 nudged Britain toward something resembling democracy. Glenda Jackson, the Oscar-winning actress turned left-wing Labour Member of Parliament, summarized the case last week in a Guardian op-ed: "Some people are still trying to redefine the election result as a triumph. Get real."

The problem is, British elections are not so easy to get real about. Their electoral system, like ours, is geared for two-party contests, but the Brits, unlike us, stuff three parties into it. The crunch yields clear-cut winners in terms of seats, but at a severe cost in democratic representativeness. With the exception of the all-party Cabinets of the Second World War, no British government has taken office with majority support since 1935. Our losers usually do better than their winners. The last British politician to run stronger there than John Kerry ran here was Harold Macmillan, forty-six years ago, and neither Thatcher nor Blair ever managed to beat Michael Dukakis's 1988 vote share. Tea tastes better over there, but the leaves are harder to read. Let's give it a try anyway.

George W. Bush won his election, and Tony Blair won his. Both campaigns were fought on issues of war and peace. But the underlying dynamics were mirror images of each other. Bush won in spite of his domestic record, especially his economic and fiscal record, which was both dismal and, according to the polls, relatively unpopular. …

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