The business of politics

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The business of politics in the US has kept me from posting on the politics of the UK, and I have a lunch meeting in a half-hour. So, here’s a quick wrap-up of the British elections.

By now, you know that Tony Blair and the Labour Party have won a historic third term, but with a reduced majority of 66 seats. The Tories gained 33 seats to garner 197, and the Lib Dems increased their total by 11 seats to 62. This is a historic win for Labour — and while a lot of attention has been focused on the reduced majority, they are still, by far, the dominant party of British politics. The Tories have picked themselves off of the mat and regained some natural Tory ground in the southeast and London to bring them closer to respectability. But to put it into perspective, the Conservatives are still worse off than Labour was after the disastrous Michael Foot-led campaign of 1983. The Liberal Democrats had a good night — and now have more seats than at any point in their modern history — but the Lib Dems have yet to break into prime time.

What the Lib Dems did do was provide an outlet for Labour rank-and-file anger toward Blair over Iraq. This Blair government takes power with the smallest percentage of the vote in history (about 36 percent). As the Prime Minister said today (which is, by the way, his birthday), “I have listened and learned.” What he heard was the British equivalent of a Bronx cheer.

While these elections are interesting for any political junkie, they are important for us as Americans. First, the UK is our strongest ally in the world — and especially in the war in Iraq and in the war against terrorism. This election sent a very loud signal to the British leadership, across all parties, that there is very little upside in being such a staunch supporter of President Bush. I believe that Blair’s support of Bush is both in the strategic interest of his country and springs from his deeply-held beliefs about the threat jihadist Islam poses to the world (see Philip Stephens’ biography on Blair for more). Yet, with about 50 hard-core Labour rebels and a diminished majority, Blair will have to walk gingerly when it comes to foreign policy. And if, as expected, he gives way to Gordon Brown in a year or two, British support for Iraq – or similar adventures — will not be anything close to automatic.

Second, there is a tradition of intellectual give-and-take between our two countries (Thatcher and Reagan; Clinton and Blair). Last night, Blair lost a good number of New Labour shock troops, and his diminished majority will tie his hands when it comes to pursuing innovation and reform in the NHS and other public services. Also, there are those who may interpret this election as a defeat for New Labour; they should not. Blair got hurt because of Iraq, nothing else. If Labour did not undergo the modernization project that Blair helped initiate in the 1990’s, it would not be in government today. As a Third Way fellow-traveler, I hope that this election and the eventual ascension of Brown to Number 10 will not dampen the intellectual ferment on the left in Britain. As we Democrats rebuild and do so in a rapidly-changing world, we need all the help we can get.

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