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Jewish World Review June 18, 2001 / 18 Sivan, 5761

Michael Barone

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Consumer Reports

Labor's love lost?

Blair's coalition is like a strong but unstable compound --
On the night his Labor Party won the May 1997 election, British Prime Minister Tony Blair proclaimed that the time for political argument was over: His "New Labor" party had reached a consensus on which all could agree. This month, Blair seemed just as strong politically: Labor scored a similar landslide victory, the first time in its 101 years it had won two full terms in office. Blair has successfully occupied the middle ground of British politics, emphasizing always that he accepts many of Margaret Thatcher's 1980s reforms while tarring today's Conservatives as extremists.

Blair has succeeded in producing a politics of consensus. But he has not produced a politics of enthusiasm. Voter turnout was down from 71 percent four years ago to 58 percent. In 1997, many voters were genuinely, even movingly, hopeful about Blair's New Labor party. This year, many were whining. Tracy Perry in Birmingham Edgbaston, the first seat to switch to Labor last election night, said, "I'm not voting for nobody, not I. They're all no good. They don't do what they say."

New Labor, like other center-left governments, will have a hard time solving pressing problems in a way that keeps its halves–the big-government old-Labor types and the Blairite cultural liberals–together. Four years ago, Blair was promising specific improvements in public services–shorter lines in the National Health Service. This time, he was promising not outputs but inputs–hiring 10,000 more doctors and 20,000 more nurses. Pouring more money into old government structures like the Health Service and the schools is not likely to produce better services. But allowing private provision of some healthcare and more accountability for schools is likely to enrage public employee unions–an institutional bulwark of Labor in Britain as they are of Democrats in the United States. If Blair moves left, as Bill Clinton did at the prompting of the Democratic Congress and his wife in 1993-94, he risks losing the middle ground. And while Clinton could tell his left after 1994 that his options were limited by the GOP Congress, Blair has a majority of 413 to 166. He must set his own course.

Unstable compound. My working hypothesis is that the center left is like a strong but unstable chemical compound. When the atoms bond together, it is very powerful indeed. But when the attraction between the atoms weakens, the whole thing can fly apart. Something like that happened momentarily during Britain's gasoline crisis last September, when motorists were unable to get fuel and the government seemed paralyzed. Blair's party even dipped below the Conservatives in a few polls. That moment quickly passed. But something like it may happen again.

One thing that might cause it is the euro. Blair seems eager to abolish the pound and embrace the European Union's new currency, but he has promised to wait until Britain meets Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown's five economic tests and to submit the issue to voters in a referendum. Polls show that 60 to 70 percent of respondents back the pound over the euro, which has lost 20 percent of its value against the dollar since it came into existence in January 1999. Conservative leader William Hague spent several days in the campaign promising to save the pound, but it didn't help him: Voters felt they could reject it later. Yet I was struck by how many voters of both parties, unprompted, brought up the pound. In a high-rise housing block where most of the elderly female residents said they were "always Labor," one who remembered the bombings of World War II said, "I want to keep the pound. Thousands have died and been killed for freedom." The pound, its strength maintained by Blair's and Brown's policies, is one of the prides of Britain.

To many Americans, British "Euroskepticism" about the European Union and the euro seem crankish. We are a United States of America, and we reflexively welcome a United States of Europe. Yet there are good reasons for the British to be skeptical of the weak euro and to resist the centralizing effects of the mostly French-run European Union, whose Brussels bureaucrats seek to raise taxes and remove economic incentives by "harmonization" directives issued over the heads of elected officials. There is reason to be concerned, as well, that the EU's Rapid Response Force proposed by the European Community will undercut NATO, although Blair has assured George W. Bush that it will not. Britain continues to have a freer, faster-growing economy than those on the Continent, one that is more like ours; EU leaders want to use the euro to change that.

The Blair inner circle and Conservatives on the stump seem confident that British opinion on the euro can be turned around, as it was in the Common Market referendum in 1975. Perhaps. But as the British were re-electing Blair, the Irish were ignoring their elites and voting to reject the EU's recent Nice Treaty. My sense is that the British attachment to the pound–a source of genuine economic strength and of nationalist pride–may be greater than the elites think. It might even destabilize the New Labor chemical compound.

Michael Baone Archives

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.


©2001, Michael Barone