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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Tony Blair's Pyrrhic victory


Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG -- The people of Britain have just re-elected Tony Blair and his Labour Party to a record third successive election victory. But in what should have been his moment of greatest triumph, Blair faces the ultimate question -- when will he give up the job of prime minister?

The much reduced Labour majority, down from 161 seats to 66, also raises questions of whether Blair will be able to govern effectively and whether he will leave office of his own volition or be forced out. There is already evidence of a burgeoning "civil war" as some Labourites demand that Blair quit soon.

Lurking in the background after last Thursday's general election are the effectiveness, efficacy and shortcomings of general elections as an expression of a working democracy in a small, modern country that plays an influential role in a complicated world.

The campaign was short but vigorous, just weeks compared with the eternal electioneering of U.S. politics. There was nothing as slow or 20th century as a party's or leader's "battle bus." Principal players traveled around by helicopter, sometimes ludicrously crisscrossing the country and spending many hours traveling for just 45 minutes a day of actual time in meeting people. They often started in the south, flying north, back to near the starting point and then back north again.

There was little logic to this wasteful flying apart from the most compelling logic of all -- to make as many minutes of airtime in as many regional television news bulletins as possible.

Rather than a choice between Blair and Michael Howard, the principal opposition figure and Conservative Party leader who lacked Blair's stature, the election was more of a referendum on Blair: Could he be trusted after the mixture of half truths and evasions over the invasion of Iraq?

On the other hand, hadn't Blair almost single-handedly transformed Labour from the old hidebound trade union-dominated, socialist-leaning, and unelectable, party to one that by 2005 seemed the natural party of government? Hadn't the economy performed well with better growth and lower unemployment than the eurozone neighbors?

Some of his supporters fairly point out that back in 1997, when Blair was first elected as a raw prime minister, he was regarded as capable of doing no wrong. He could walk on water and win the Eurovision song contest at the same time, as well as govern the country.

Now Blair is being reviled as everyone's enemy and must face the awkward arithmetic of the power-crunching numbers. The prime minister probably won't worry too much about the fact that Labour only won just under 36 percent of the popular vote, yet collared 355 of the 646 seats in Parliament. Britain's first-past-the-post-system, where the leading candidate takes the seat without having to win even a simple majority, has always distorted the result in favor of the winning party.

With strong showings by Liberal Democrats (22.1 percent of the popular vote but only 62 seats) and a plethora of other parties including the Greens and the bitter rivals in Northern Ireland, the Conservatives have suffered most from the system, winning 32.3 percent of the vote, but trailing with 197 seats.

The arithmetic that counts for Blair is that his majority includes up to 50 leftists who hanker for the old Labour Party and who will not forgive Blair for going to war over Iraq. They have already begun baying for Blair's blood, claiming -- with rich exaggeration -- that the prime minister is an electoral liability.

The other factor is the restlessness of heir apparent Gordon Brown, with whom Blair is long supposed to have made a pact, promising to step down after a single term in exchange for Brown's support in the original election in the mid-1990s that saw Blair become Labour leader.

Brown has been Blair's chancellor of the exchequer and the economic mastermind of the government, and will therefore supervise a smooth succession. But it remains to be seen whether the blunt and even bullying and bruising Brown will miss Blair's soothing charm when it comes to wooing an electorate.

That is a matter for the Labour Party to rue. What should be of more concern are the shortcomings of a general election such as this as an expression of democracy. Only one foreign issue -- Iraq -- surfaced in the election campaign. This was conducted in such broad brush terms -- did Blair lie or was he merely economical with the truth over weapons of mass destruction and over advice on the legality of the war -- as to exclude some of the implications, such as Britain's relationship with the United States and with Europe.

Other topics were distinctly local, with Howard, himself from a family of Jewish immigrants to Britain, manning the barricades in defense of immigration. Britain's popular press, led by Australian-American Rupert Murdoch's Sun, eschewed any role in helping to inform the election debate. Front-page stories deteriorated into slogans in support of one side or another without bothering to lay out or weigh the issues.

Faced with a list of between three and 10 names, the voter had only one small square in which to make his mark. There was no space to scribble, "I support Ms. A, but only if . . .; otherwise I vote for Mr. B." That would constitute a spoiled ballot.

The winning party can do what it likes until the next election, restrained only by a supposedly neutral civil service and a press that has largely chosen not to serve as a searchlight and mirror of what is happening outside the Westminster-Whitehall power corridor.

Members of Parliament driven by their party whips have long become used to voting for whatever their party decides. Even on the contentious issue of Iraq, MPs could not persuade Blair to come clean and lay out the full background and advice he had received -- so it is ironic that his failures then have come back to haunt him now and his victory has a Pyrrhic aspect. But it is not Blair who suffers most: By now the damage has been done to too many lives.

It is hardly a new thought that a general election is an inadequate and certainly incomplete way of expressing democratic choice. What is new and depressing is that politicians and press have abdicated their responsibilities to such an extent as to undermine the quality of decision-making, as Blair may realize too late.

Kevin Rafferty is a former managing editor for the World Bank.


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