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Come on Back, Tony Blair

Despite the British prime minister's troubled track record, the British electorate will almost certainly re-elect the Labour Party -- and they will be right to do so.
 
 
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Tony Blair is having a rough week. The days before the national elections in Britain have been marked by new and damning revelations of his outright mendacity or, at the very least, monumental self-deception over Iraq. Over the weekend, voters learned that not only had their prime minister planned for a war before he went to the UN to seek its blessing, but that Blair misrepresented his own attorney general's advice on the legality of the invasion to his cabinet.

Yet a majority of the British electorate will undoubtedly vote the Labour Party back into office -- and they will be right to do so. As a British expatriate living in New York, I would do exactly the same if I were back home today. For if my fellow countrymen and women are poised to reelect a man whom they clearly do not trust, it's a measure not of their gullibility but their immense political sophistication.

It's Gordon Brown, Stupid

The various American (mis)perceptions of the British electoral landscape were on full display last week at a Manhattan forum hosted by Harry Evans for The Week magazine. Here's what the two contending speakers had to say.

Sidney Blumenthal, who supports Tony Blair, portrayed him as a transatlantic Bill Clinton -- hardly a surprising characterization given the close relationship between the two men as evidenced by Clinton's recent public declaration of support for his old "Third Way" partner. Anything to help his buddy distance himself from George Bush, who is thoroughly disdained by most British voters.

Difficult as it was to get anyone to support Conservative leader Michael Howard, the organizers managed to conscript the National Review 's Andrew Stuttaford, who fulfilled his obligation by damning the Tory candidate with exceedingly faint praise. Like Blumenthal, Stuttaford, took for granted an impending Blair victory, and reiterated his Clintonista tendencies -- though in less ecstatic terms than his debate opponent. But he warned that a Labour victory would mark the ascendancy not of Tony "New Labour" Blair but Gordon Brown -- a dyed-in-wool socialist, no less. (If only that were so!)

The irony, of course, is that Stuttaford made a much better case than Blumenthal for voting Labour -- at least in the minds of the average British voter -- since much of Blair's unpopularity in Britain derives from his Clintonian tendency to adopt his opponents' policies. And the increasing likelihood that Brown will supplant Blair in the future is good news for an electorate that has lost all trust in the slippery bosom buddy of both Bill and W. There's a good reason why the Labour Party's election campaign is astutely Blair-light, and most of its candidates are so eager to be seen on the same platform as Brown. If Tony Blair is re-elected this week it's because voters expect him to be ousted by his more openly liberal party colleague.

Blair is not the only New Labour luminary relying on old-fashioned Labour support to stay in office. Perhaps the ultimate in ironies is the campaign of Foreign Secretary Jack Straw whose opponent in his Blackburn constituency is none other than the former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, who resigned over British complicity in the U.S. policy of shipping its "suspected terrorists" into that country to be tortured. To prevail over Craig, Straw is relying on none other than former foreign secretary, old Labour Robin Cook -- the man who quit the Blair cabinet over the Iraq War.

The Old/New Labour Party

Straw's predicament also offers an important reminder to American observers who tend to forget that this is not a U.S.-style presidential election, i.e., a face-off between Blair and Howard. This is a parliamentary election that will be fought in 659 separate local seats, where, in most but not all cases, voters will choose candidates on the basis of their party affiliation. And whatever his credibility problems with the British electorate, Blair has not yet succeeded. in efforts to transform the Labour Party into something like the Democratic Leadership Council. If most Americans are not aware of the genuine accomplishments of the party, it's because Blair and his immediate entourage have been reluctant to advertise them in fear of alienating the Rupert Murdochs of the world. As one senior cabinet member of oldish Labour inclinations has complained in the safety of New York, "We've really done a lot of good, but we're not allowed to talk about it."

And also, to be fair, Brown himself has colluded in this reticence though for very different reasons. Previous Labour governments were often sabotaged by hostile financial institutions, which made sure that its leaders were too busy dealing with a run on the pound to do significant income redistribution policies. The result is that Labour's genuine progressive achievements have been played down, even as its backsliding on genuine reform is played up.

A quick look at its record reveals that Blair's government, in practice, has been far to the left of most of the Democratic Party. It introduced a minimum wage for the first time in Britain, and maintained its value so that from October of this year the minimum wage will be the equivalent of $9.60 -- with free health care as always. What's more, the quality of that health care is much better too, thanks to Tony Blair. By 2008, at current rates of increase, Labour will have doubled spending on the National Health Service since it took office.

In fact, not only has Labour considerably increased the amount the amount spent on health and education under warmonger Blair, it has reduced the amount of money spent on defense from 10 percent to 6 percent of the budget. His government has introduced tax credits for retirees and poor families, measures which, along with the minimum wage, have resulted in falling poverty rates among children and pensioners both. And the Labour government has achieved all this while maintaining a steadily growing economy and falling unemployment, which is now at its lowest level in 30 years.

But what price a national health service and a minimum wage at the cost of your national conscience? What about foreign policy? With the admittedly very significant exception of the disastrous and dishonest attack on Iraq, Labour has not poodled along in the wake of Bush and the neocons in world arena. Britain, for example, has accepted the UN guideline that asks wealthy countries to donate 0.7 percent of their GDP for overseas aid; aggressively advocated debt write-offs for Africa; not only ratified but pushed hard for the Kyoto protocols; and supported the International Criminal Court in the teeth of American opposition.

While it may offer little consolation for anti-war advocates, the one potential mitigating factor offsetting Blair's connivance in Bush's adventure in Iraq is his continual insistence that the White House take a more balanced approach to resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. He may have been unsuccessful -- but he has tried his best.

Return of Old Labour

While few politicians go into an election praying for a smaller majority for their party, many prominent Labour dissidents are, in fact, privately hoping for a much reduced majority in the House of Commons. A smaller margin would reduce the number of recent members of Parliament who are New Labour proteges. Their departure would give the old guard the leverage they need to overturn the illiberal breaks with Labour tradition that Blair has pushed through, as in the invasion of Iraq, introduction of college fees and identity cards, a stricter political asylum policy, and the various pale imitations of the Patriot Act that the Blair administration barely managed to push through even with its huge parliamentary majority.

While such policies hardly deserve to be rewarded, no one can doubt that Britain is a better place now than it was when Blair took office, nor that it is better off without the Conservatives, who have become a slimy caricature of themselves. Since this is the real world where making one choice requires considering the alternatives, the British will almost certainly re-elect Labour -- and they will be right to do so.

Ian Williams' new book Rum: A Social & Sociable History of the Real Spirit of 1776 will be out this Fall from Nation Books.