Blair wins with style

Report from Britain

Polling Day was Thursday, May 1. That evening my wife and I were sitting in an Indian restaurant across the road from the local Labour party headquarters. Through a window we watched the candidate, for whom we had voted earlier in the day, emerge with a party worker and set off jogging down the road. "It’s a long wait for them," said my wife. "They’ve got to do something to pass the time and keep their spirits up. He can’t get drunk, he’s got to keep sober for the count." We didn’t expect him to win; we live in Warwickshire, traditional Tory territory of small towns, rich countryside, and pretty villages, long represented in the House of Commons by a now septuagenarian knight. But we were wrong; when the result came through in the small hours of the morning, Sir Dudley had been defeated by the Labour man. And so it proved across the country, in a night which tumbled many records. The Labour party, with 419 MPs in a House of Commons of 660, has won the greatest victory in its history, surpassing its previous high-water mark at the 1945 election, and has the largest majority of any party for years. There are more women in Parliament-mostly on the Labour benches-than ever before. The Conservatives are down to 165, a quarter of the total, fewer than at any time since the great Liberal victory of 1906. And Tony Blair, taking office a few days before his forty-fourth birthday, is the youngest prime minister since 1812. It is an astonishing contrast to the state of Labour in 1992 when the party lost its fourth successive election, and serious doubts were expressed that it would ever get into office again.

It had, by British standards, been a long campaign. Although five years is the maximum life of a Parliament, the system permits the prime minister to dissolve it and call an election (or request the Queen to) at any time during the final year or so. John Major hung on to the very end in the mistaken hope that his prospects would improve, so there were six weeks of campaigning instead of the usual three or four. Like many people, I found it a depressing and-to borrow an expressive word from the old moralists-"disedifying" business, where the complexities of politics are reduced to sound bites and slogans, lies and semi-lies and misleading truths. Still, if that is the way modern elections have to be fought, then by general agreement the Labour party fought it very professionally, with a detailed battle plan run from a highly computerized headquarters in London, and an intense focus on the winnable target seats. American influence was evident, with tips picked up from Clinton’s advisers; Blair’s campaign plane was nicknamed Blairforce One.

But there was more style than substance about the Labour campaign. Its main aim was to avoid rocking the boat; for more than two years opinion polls had been showing a large Labour lead and the whole campaign was devoted to preserving it. So there was no passion and no controversy, merely the reiteration of a limited number of feasible aims and the avoidance of large promises. Labour party members went along with this to a remarkable degree and no one spoke out of turn, not even those left wingers who do not like Blair and detest what

he has done to the party. This unity and discipline were in striking contrast to the Conservatives, who entered the campaign in a state of virtual civil war about attitudes to the European Monetary Union-not a matter of immediate concern to the average worker-which John Major was unable to quell.

Still, it takes more than technology and slick campaigning to win an election. Labour had the support of a large number of dedicated volunteers who were passionate for change; some of them now unexpectedly find themselves in Parliament, as they had agreed to run for what were thought of as safe Tory seats and then got elected, to their pleasure and astonishment and in some cases, I imagine, personal inconvenience. A change was expected but not this big a change, which was not so much a landslide as an earthquake that has altered the landscape of politics in Britain. For the Conservatives it was a night of unprecedented disaster. Several cabinet ministers lost their seats, including Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind and the Secretary for Defense Michael Portillo, the latter an ambitious right winger with his sights firmly set on party leadership; his hopes were dashed by the voters. The Conservatives ended up with no seats in Scotland and Wales, and very few in the English cities; they are reduced to rural areas and the more prosperous suburbs. This is not the sort of thing that is meant to happen to the Conservative party, which has been in office for most of this century and whose prime aim is to hold onto power at all costs, acting quite ruthlessly in order to preserve it, as when Margaret Thatcher was seen to have become a liability and dropped. They’ll be back, undoubtedly, but not for a while.

"Enough is enough!" was one Labour slogan, and the voters agreed, more emphatically than anyone suspected. Eighteen years is a long time in office, and the Conservative government was in a bad way, racked with division, afflicted by financial scandals, and weakly led. "Turn the rascals out!" is a proper political aim, and the voters were skillful in maximizing the anti-Tory vote, electing liberal Democrats in forty-six seats, twice as many as they had before. But the election also points to an ideological shift, a reaction against the dominance of the market and the Social Darwinian attitudes that justify it, and a wish to see a fairer, more decent, and less divided society. This, certainly, is what Tony Blair wants. He is now the dominant figure in British politics. after his extraordinary success in transforming his party during the last three years, moving away from traditional socialism and a close association with organized labor to something more like the Christian Democratic ideal, he has won a stunning victory and gained an authority rare in a democratic leader. I don’t envy him the dreadful burden of government, but he brings a hope of change. What a relief!

Published in the 1997-05-23 issue: 

Bernard Bergonzi is the author of A Study in Greene, among many other books of literary criticism.

Also by this author
Coalition of the Willing

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