- The Washington Times - Friday, June 8, 2001

LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blairs Labor Party stormed to victory early today in Britains elections, clinching a parliamentary majority that propelled him to a second term in office and dealt a crushing defeat to his Conservative rivals.

With 418 of the 659 constituencies reporting, Labor had won 330 seats, just enough for a majority. The Conservatives won 53 and the third-party Liberal Democrats and others the remainder. Earlier, with his lead inexorably mounting, the popular British prime minister told cheering supporters victory was at hand.

"There is no greater honor than to serve you as prime minister," said the 48-year-old leader. "You have given us tonight an historic moment … The Labor Party, for the first time in the 100 years of our history, looks as if we may be on the verge of a second successive full term of office."

While two previous Labor prime ministers have won consecutive elections, neither served out a full second term — so time will tell if Mr. Blair´s feat is indeed a first.

Within moments of the end of balloting, exit polls pointed to an increase on Labor´s 179-seat landslide in 1997, which ended 18 years of Conservative rule. Just moments after the polls closed, Independent Television News predicted Labor would win with a margin of 193 seats in Britain´s 659-seat House of Commons.

The British Broadcasting Corp.´s exit poll predicted Labor would secure 408 of the 659 parliamentary seats, while ITN predicted it would win 417 seats.

Meanwhile, politicians across the spectrum expressed concern over indications that voter turnout had hit historic lows.

Throughout the campaign, as public opinion surveys consistently gave him commanding leads, Mr. Blair sought to battle voter apathy — perhaps with limited success. Estimates put voter turnout at around 60 percent, which would be the lowest in modern times. In recent votes, nationwide turnouts have run between 70 percent and 77 percent.

"Turnout is low — there´s something sick in the heart of our politics," Paddy Ashdown, former Liberal Democrat leader, told Sky News. Labor parliamentarian Tam Dalyell said the low turnout "speaks volumes about the low respect that politicians are now held."

Mr. Blair´s triumph was clouded by public jitters over his government´s leanings toward closer European union.

Even as Britons were casting ballots, the pound touched 15-year lows against the dollar — seen as a reflection of worries about the country eventually joining the single European currency.

The government has insisted it would not take Britain into the common currency — the euro — without referendum approval.

Conservative leader William Hague had largely pinned his campaign to anti-euro sentiment, along with pledges to defend Britain´s European Union veto powers and scuttle plans for a European rapid-reaction force.

The Conservatives also called for significant tax cuts, tougher policies on crime and immigration, and decentralized control of the nation´s schools, while Mr. Blair sought a mandate to renew public services, bolster the flagship national health service and boost secondary school standards.

Under Mr. Blair, Labor has had consistently high approval ratings for its handling of the economy, the area where it had historically failed to win public confidence.

But it also roused the enmity of rural voters, who feel the government has neglected them, especially during the foot-and-mouth epidemic of recent months, now abating.

In tense Northern Ireland, the Labor-Conservative rivalry was all but irrelevant — the province´s 18 seats in the British Parliament were being contested by regional Protestant and Catholic parties, in a vote seen as a key test for the 1998 peace accord.

Underscoring the volatile atmosphere, a gunman wounded two policemen outside a rural polling station, police said.

Trouble also flared in Oldham, a rough-hewn northern England town that was torn by racial violence last month.

Members of an anti-racism group confronted a far-right politician as results were being tallied, and one person was arrested as the protesters scuffled with police.

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