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Tony Blair's Tenuous Trifecta

Robert R. Thompson

Blair endured a grueling campaign that required him to actually face disgruntled voters -- quite unlike Bush's pre-screened, pre-set, flag waving constituency.

Scotland, Before the UK Elections
Edinburgh, Friday, 1 April 2005. This weekend in Scotland, as all of the UK anticipates Prime Minister Tony Blair's announcement of the next British General Election for Thursday 5 May, Scottish voters might pick up the phone and hear a familiar fellow Scot. "Hello there. This is Sean Connery. No it's not a joke. Unfortunately, the real joke is the Labour Party. I'm calling you on behalf of the Scottish National Party. Why? Because it has been acknowledged and voted to be the most trustworthy political party of them all." The Scottish National Party supports Scottish independence. And, as a headline in today's The Scotsman notes, "The SNP hopes Sir Sean's phone message will shtir up the voters."

Whether Sir Sean's appeal will bear fruit remains to be seen. During last fall's election in the States, many of us took calls "from" Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and Barbara Streisand, urging us to vote for the Democrats and John Kerry. Between August and November, after numerous calls, these bright lights of politics and entertainment soon wore out their welcome -- for me, anyway. There is less chance that Sir Sean will eventually bore Scottish voters. They'll only have about a month to endure his message. Meanwhile, I have the chance to observe first-hand the initial stages of this UK election, and two themes pique my interest. The first is the way the Brits campaign and the different aspects of the political process in the UK from that of the US. The second is the campaign and the issues it will focus upon. While there seem to be some dissenting rumblings about Blair's unwavering support for President Bush and the Iraq War, at the moment it doesn't seem to be a dominant concern.

It has been quite interesting to see the political Parties' pre-election maneuvering. The British Prime Minister (PM) possesses the substantial power to, within five years of the last election, choose the actual election date. In the US election day is set. It's always the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, in even numbered years for national offices. Imagine that the first George Bush had that election date control. He would probably have called an election soon after the quick and, relatively, low cost Gulf War in 1991, when his popularity soared. By Election Day 1992 the war was a distant memory, the economy tanked, and Bill Clinton was in.

The British PM can't control events, but he or she can control when to hold the election in response to those events. This also means that politicians and the media don't start the countdown to the next election immediately after the current one is done -- they don't know when it will be. In the States the 2008 presidential campaign began the day after George Bush's reelection on 2 November. And, perhaps the most amazing aspect of the campaign is that it will all be done in about five weeks. The campaign ends. One party wins, and they start governing immediately. If Michael Howard, the Conservative Party leader were to defeat Tony Blair, which doesn't seem to likely, he would take power the day after the election.

There is a subtle dance taking place among the parties, as they circle each other, hurling attacks, waiting for the announcement which will set the 5 May election date, and which they know must come soon. Even the Pope's death and the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles has only briefly slowed down the pre-election momentum. As Bill Jacobs wrote in the Edinburgh Evening News yesterday, "MPs are raring to fight the good (and dirty) fight." They are "fed up with the phoney war that precedes the election." (Bill Jacobs, Edinburgh Evening News, 31 March 2005) I find this "phoney war" intriguing. The Tory (Conservative Party) leader Michael Howard, who will be the next PM if his party defeats Tony Blair and the Labour Party, just made a decision which caused a huge row in the party. It threatens to split the Tories, who already fight from behind, as the election campaign officially begins. It also demonstrates the power a party leader in the UK, even if not PM has over members of Parliament from their party. A battle like this would be very unlikely in a US campaign.

Mr. Howard has sacked his former deputy chairman Howard Flight for suggesting that a Conservative government would cut public spending much more than already suggested. Mr. Flight is "de-selected". He may not be a candidate for reelection to his seat in Parliament. Imagine an American president telling his local party organization that he was unhappy with their representative or senator, and refused to permit them to run for reelection. This imbroglio is getting quite complicated. There is debate about whether Mr. Howard can actually de-select a Conservative MP. There is controversy over how Mr. Flight's comments reached the public. The Tories " insist that a Labour 'mole' infiltrated the meeting (where Mr. Flight made his comments) to tape Mr. Flight." (The Scotsman, 30 March 2005) Scandal! Dirty tricks! Watching British political combat is almost as exciting as following the royal family.

The upshot of this flap is that the Conservatives, already running behind Tony Blair and the Labour party and given little chance to replace them, begin the campaign deeply divided. And, in the wake of a flurry of negative headlines such as, "Howard plea for unity as Flight row threatens to split party" (The Scotsman, 29 March 2005), "Howard at bay over his 'heartless' sacking of party friend" (The Times, 29 March 2005), "Howard's judgment under fire" (The Times, 30 March 2005), Blair need only stand back and watch the Tories self destruct. The internal fight has distracted attention from the Conservative attempt to focus attention on its policy offerings. It was, for example, "overshadowing the launch of the Tories' childcare policy." (The Scotsman, 29 March 2005) Labour is free to start the campaign emphasizing the economy, "Labour's 'big beasts' rely on economy to kickstart campaign" (The Times, 31 March 2005), "Blair puts economy at center of election fight" (Edinburgh Evening News, 31 March 2005), and link the Tories Flight fight to this issue. Blair notes that it is clear that the Conservatives favor deep public spending cuts, that "The commitment to public spending cuts is the truth that dare not speak its name in the modern Conservative Party. They all believe it, but they will only say it in private." (The Times, 31 March 2005)

It's unfortunate that I must leave as the campaign officially begins. For there is an issue in the developing campaign that I find especially interesting. This issue was a dominating concern in last year's American presidential election, and I am curious to see how it plays out during the campaign. This is the influence of the so-called moral issues. Some UK Conservatives hope that this cluster of issues will benefit their party as it did George Bush and his fellow Republicans in the US last fall. On March 27, Easter Sunday, a long column by Eddie Barnes and Brian Brady in Scotland on Sunday about the upcoming general election claims, "It's the morality, stupid." This surprises me, as I had thought that in the UK, unlike in the US, this "morality" obsession had not taken hold. Yet Barnes and Brady argue that as the election looms, "the unexpected has happened: the country has become locked in an epic spiritual struggle within the moral maze. The economy, inflation, and public services are out. Abortion, euthanasia and questions of faith are in." (Scotland on Sunday, 27 March 2005)

In the same essay, Tony Blair, who is well known as a practicing Christian, warns, "that religion should not become a major election issue." I have been somewhat surprised at the extensive news coverage, on both British and Scottish news shows, of the death this week of Terry Schiavo. One would almost think that it was happening here, not in the states. Are "moral" issues going to be crucial in the UK election? One young student that I briefly talked with suggested, "It won't play here. Terry Schiavo's a curiosity here, not a political symbol like she is in the states. I'm mad about Bush." As I prepare to depart, I wonder, where is the debate on that supremely moral issue, the Iraq War? Will Blair escape the war's messy aftermath, and no WMD, as Bush did? The main office of the Scottish Green Party in the Scottish Parliament building sports a large anti-Bush picture in its window. Are the Scottish Greens the only ones angry with Blair's aping Bush?

America, After the UK Elections
Back in the States, late May 2005. The election is over. On 5 May Tony Blair and the Labour Party won a third term. But his victory seems tenuous. His parliamentary majority fell from almost 200 to 66. This includes a gain of two seats for the SNP, so Sir Sean's phone calls had some effect on Scottish voters. The way the election played out showed that the British student I talked with, and not Mr. Barnes and Mr. Brady, was, as they say in the UK, "spot on" in her thoughts on moral issues in the UK election: they had little impact. If American "moral issue" voters put Mr. Bush over the top in last fall's US election, a New York Times headline nicely summarized, a week before the UK election, their different impact in the two elections, "Social Issues That Bolster Bush Fail the Hapless British Tories." Thus, "The social issues that have proved crucial to Mr. Bush's success in the United States have little resonance in this country." (The New York Times, 27 April 2005)

Back in the States it still seemed, to my continuing surprise, that the war would take a back seat during the UK campaign. "War Is Muted as Issue in Britain, but not for its Muslims," The New York Times reported on 22 April. But, with the disclosure of a document by the UK attorney general Lord Goldsmith that the war was not necessarily legal without specific UN resolutions, and numerous questions to Mr. Blair at town meetings (more on that in a moment), many British, not only those of Muslim descent, came to see the war as the issue. In the election district of Bethnal Green & Bow in east London, which has a sizable Muslim population, George Galloway defeated Labour's Oona King. Mr. Galloway ran for a new, anti-war party, more of a movement than a party, called Respect. "Ms. King was one of Tony Blair's most loyal supporters and backed the war." (BBC News, 15 May 2005) Just to show that the Labour Party also uses its clout against recalcitrant members, Mr. Galloway was expelled from the party in October 2003 due to his fierce anti-war statements. Now he has his revenge. But on 17 May he was in the US testifying before a Senate investigatory committee about involvement in Iraqi oil dealings.

It is not clear how this controversy will play out. Tony Blair's had other problems, in his home district of Sedgefield, the constituency that sends him to Parliament. The district cast 4,252 votes for an independent candidate, Mr. Reg Keys. His son, a soldier, died in the war, and Mr. Keys ran to protest the war. While he ran, not surprisingly, far behind Tony Blair's 24,421 votes, his vote total indicates a remarkable anti-Blair protest in his own district. (BBC News, 15 May 20005)

Perhaps you saw an astonishing moment on BBC during C-Span's 5 May election night simulcast. In the UK, in each constituency, the votes are counted, and then all the candidates, from all the parties, must stand in a line, face the crowd and the cameras and hear their vote totals announced, whether it's 20,000 or 200. Mr. Blair, although the PM, had to stand there in Sedgefield along with the other candidates and listen to the totals; and, listen to Mr. Keys demand an apology from him for the war. Indeed, compared to an American presidential candidate, Tony Blair endured a grueling campaign that required him to actually face disgruntled voters. It packed more substance into five weeks than US campaigns do in a year.

Take, for example, those town meetings. In its own unique British election night coverage, Jon Stewart's Daily Show vividly demonstrated the British candidate treatment by contrasting footage of US and UK town meetings. While Bush appears before idolatrous crowds of preselected fawning supporters, Blair is pounded over and over, called a "liar," and by the end of one such meeting is dripping with sweat. (Daily Show, 4 May 2005) Blair received, as they say, "A proper grilling". The UK voters did care about the war. During my time in the UK, the electorate's anger was not immediately apparent, but they are, undeniably, angry. They are angry about Blair's obeisance to George Bush. They are angry about the absence of WMDs in Iraq.

I believe that "Maybe the British Do Democracy Better", as Adam Nagourney's article notes. From substantive party manifestoes, to campaigns not allowed to show wall-to-wall 30-second TV ads, the UK system is quick, often dramatic, and gives voters a fair amount of power in the process. (The New York Times, 1 May 2005) In fact, UK election turnout this year was 61.3 percent, and that was viewed as low! (BBC News, 15 May 2005) OK, I plead guilty to being an Anglophile. I know that the US is a larger, more heterogeneous country. And, more importantly, the American system divides the executive and the legislative power. In the UK they are fused, Tony Blair is head of government and an MP. UK voters are more firmly attached to their political parties of choice. Which makes it all the more remarkable that even Labour voters were willing and able to register a strong anti-war verdict. On election night Robin Cook, a Labour MP who actually resigned from Blair's cabinet over the war, recounted on the BBC that staunch Labour voters specifically told him they would vote against him, and thus Labour, in order to hurt Tony Blair. They didn't care that he had resigned, they wanted to reduce Blair's parliamentary majority. And the voters did just that.

I also admit that my appreciation for the UK election system is reinforced when I see US election practices introduced into, and threatening, the UK campaign. Back on March 31, Channel 4 News in Scotland reported on American-style targeted voter campaigns throughout the UK. They employ focus groups, consumer surveys, computer modeling of constituencies, and other sophisticated techniques oriented more towards voters' candidate image recognition than their issue concerns. They appear mostly in marginal constituencies -- those that were close in the last election and could "swing" either way in 2005.

Key members in the Kerry, Dean, Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton campaigns are spearheading this trend. (The New York Times, 3 May 2005) During the BBC's election night coverage, several commentators decried the "presidentialization" of the UK campaign, and the subtle shift to candidate image emphasis. I am angry about the idea of American campaign consultants debasing the UK campaign. US and UK democracy is not, and will never be, the same. But it seems to me that, in the future, unfortunately, it will be easier to inject US shallowness into UK campaigns than it will be to return UK substance to US elections.

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