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Jewish World Review July 9, 2002 / 29 Tamuz, 5762

Michael Barone

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The only major country where a "third way" center-left government is thriving



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Britain today is the only major country where a "third way" center-left government is thriving-and it is indeed thriving. For nearly 10 years, since September 1992, New Labor (as Tony Blair calls it) has been leading the Conservative Party in the public opinion polls, and it has won two landslide victories-something no British party had done since the 1930s-in May 1997 and June 2001. Few parties in major democracies have held sway over public opinion for so long.

What are the secrets of New Labor's success? One is the performance of the economy. The key variable, as in the United States, is not income but wealth. In Margaret Thatcher's 1980s, increased stock ownership, rising housing prices, and profits from the sale of "council estate units" (i.e., the privatization of public housing) produced real wealth for ordinary Britons, and Thatcher's Conservatives thrived. In 1992 the collapse of the European Rate Mechanism raised British interest rates, which increased payments on variable rate mortgages and eroded wealth, and the ratings of John Major's Conservatives plummeted. Since New Labor's victory in 1997, interest rates have stayed low, housing prices have shot up again, and the stock market (at least until the WorldCom bust last week) rose.

New Labor raised taxes, but mostly indirectly and only a bit, in its first term in office. In the April 2002 budget, Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown raised taxes more, primarily to pay for increased spending for the National Health Service. But so great is satisfaction with the economy-and dissatisfaction with the long lines and poor facilities at the NHS-that this has cost Labor little or nothing in the polls. Conservative critics argue that revenues are dipping below estimates and that budget surpluses will be cut by that spending, but so far this argument has been unpersuasive. To date, sound economic policy has been a major reason for New Labor success.

Another reason is that, against the proclivities of many of its backbenchers, New Labor has hewed to the right on noneconomic, cultural issues. Tony Blair first won public notice by promising, as shadow home secretary, to be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime." The Labor government has also been tough on asylum seekers, who have been thronging to Britain more than to countries on the European continent (they try to stow away on trains through the English Channel tunnel); on this issue their critics to the left are the small Liberal Democratic Party. New Labor claims credit for raising test scores among primary school pupils, though it concedes that secondary schools are still not doing well enough.

Through all this Blair and Brown have steered a steady course. They have been allies since the 1980s; after the sudden death of Labor leader John Smith in May 1994, they sat down for dinner at a restaurant called Granita in the trendy Islington section of London and agreed that Blair would become party leader and Brown would become shadow chancellor. To a greater extent than in a presidential system, they have subdivided their leadership. Blair, as leader and as prime minister, is the chief spokesman for the party, is firmly in charge of foreign policy, and generally sets policy and fills offices. Brown, as chancellor, has the duties of the U.S. treasury secretary and the director of the Office of Management and Budget; he keeps a firm hold on spending and on government policy in most domestic departments and in defense as well.

He also has a key role on the one issue on which New Labor has been out of line with public opinion: whether Britain should join the euro, the European Union's common currency. Polls have consistently shown that British voters would rather keep the pound. In 1997, New Labor avoided damage on the issue by announcing that it would not go off the pound unless voters approved it in a referendum. In 1999, Brown announced that the government would not hold a referendum in its first term, and he set out five economic tests that would have to be satisfied before he would recommend a referendum. So to a considerable extent Blair has handed over this potentially politically risky decision to Brown. It is widely believed now that a referendum must be held by June 2003, well before the expected 2005 general election, or not at all. There is inevitably a tension between Blair and Brown, since Brown obviously would like to become prime minister and Blair certainly does not want to give up the job.

How long can New Labor's dominance last? Margaret Thatcher once promised to "go on and on and on." New Labor leaders think they can, too. They are confident that their formula will keep working. They believe they are not giving the opposition an opening to the right on issues like immigration, asylum, and crime, as center-left and left parties have in France, the Netherlands, and Italy. They believe their economic policies will keep working. They believe they can repair government services widely conceded to have performed poorly-the National Health Service, the train network, the police (crime is up this past year). They believe that the Conservatives are clueless, politically inept, ignored by the public, and as unthinkable an alternative as the old left-wing Labor Party was in the 1983 and 1987 elections. Ten years ago, they say, the Conservatives were seen as cruel but competent, but after the ERM breakdown they were seen as only cruel. Widely dramatized Conservative splits over the euro and other issues, with frequent invocations of and occasional interventions by Thatcher, made the Conservatives seem a party in disarray.

Polls seem to justify New Labor's confidence, at least for now. Blair might have been hurt by a spate of stories in the Conservative press charging that through his aides he tried to "muscle in" on the Queen Mother's lying-in-state in the houses of Parliament-stories that lent weight to the charge that New Labor is overly fond of spin and favorable publicity. But an ICM Research poll from June 21-23 reported in the Guardian and an NOP Research poll from June 21-24 reported in the Telegraph showed Labor leading Conservatives by 42 percent to 32 percent and by 41 percent to 31 percent-statistically indistinguishable from the June 2001 popular vote of 42 percent to 33 percent. An earlier YouGov poll taken June 21 showed a Labor lead of only 38 percent to 35 percent, but that poll is conducted over the Internet among volunteer participants-quite likely not a valid statistical sample.

But those polls also show Blair has some underlying weaknesses. Only 40 percent in the Guardian poll thought Blair was more honest than most politicians, while 49 percent disagreed-surely a decline since 1997. And in the Telegraph poll, only 38 percent said Blair would make the best prime minister, well above the 19 percent for Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith but well behind the 52 percent who said that of Blair in June 2001. Blair used to run well ahead of his party; now he runs, at best, slightly behind. That raises the question of whether he has the credibility needed to turn around opinion in a euro referendum; the Telegraph poll shows the euro trailing 63 percent to 32 percent.

Do the Conservatives have no chance for revival? Duncan Smith, elected leader last September, is not well known and receives little coverage in the press. He is dismissed with scorn by New Labor strategists. But he is trying to remake his party somewhat as New Labor strategists remade theirs. No longer do Conservatives concentrate on the euro and European Community issues, partly because they are no longer split on them (few Conservative MPs support the euro). Instead, Duncan Smith is aiming to challenge New Labor's competence in improving services-healthcare, transport, crime-and to argue that Conservatives, far from being cruel, are seeking above all to protect the vulnerable.

New Labor, in for five years, can no longer credibly blame problems on the previous Conservative government, and it cannot be denied that there are problems with services. Street crime is now worse in London than in New York and is bad outside the capital as well. Transportation is a mess: Labor Transport Minister Stephen Byers was forced to resign in June, after a clumsy renationalization of Railtrack that seems likely to cost taxpayers far more than promised. There are constant horror stories about the National Health Service, which has longer waiting lines and less available treatment than other European health services, in which some care is provided by the private as well as the public sector. New Labor is confident that it can solve these problems and be seen to have done so; Conservatives say they are confident that New Labor's solutions cannot work.

The adversarial nature of British politics, epitomized by parliamentary Question Time, seems to lead many politicians to look down on their opponents. New Labor leaders regard Conservative leaders as contemptibly stupid, clueless even as to their own political advantage, unaware of the low regard in which they are held. Conservative leaders regard New Labor leaders, Blair above all, as spinmeisters and rhetoricians, smart barristers who can make plausible arguments but who are inept managers unable to transform their popular slogans into concrete policies. Many British journalists seem to think both views are right.

I am inclined to believe that both views are wrong. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown seem to me to be conviction politicians, quite gifted at spin to be sure and probably overreliant on it, but also anchored to a set of beliefs that has enabled them to set a pretty steady course on politics and policy for eight years and indeed going back before that.

They are quite a contrast in that regard to Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who tacked and bobbed and weaved in a way that has left third-way "new Democrats" scarcer and less powerful than they were 10 years ago. Certainly, Blair's visceral pro-American stands since September 11, scarcely typical of Labor MPs, arise from deep conviction, not political calculation. As for Duncan Smith and other leading Conservatives, they seem to me to be aware of the contempt most voters hold for their party, and they are trying to frame issues in a way that could persuade the voters to think differently, and in a way that is in line with their own core convictions.

It is possible to imagine circumstances in which Conservatives could be competitive again: economic events that threaten voters' wealth accumulation, a visible failure of services to improve, a rejection of the euro in a referendum, or a refusal to call a referendum in a way that is embarrassing to the government. In the United States since 1996 and in Britain since 1992, public opinion on the two major parties has not much changed, with both parties about even in the United States and one party way ahead in Britain. But history tells us that political numbers do not stay the same forever and that the acts of politicians-not least those of New Labor-can make them move more than anyone imagined. left.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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©2002, Michael Barone