- The Washington Times - Friday, May 6, 2005

This much is apparent from British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s historic third electoral victory: His new Labor Party appears to have reached its high-water mark, as British politics moves farther left. Casual American observers might not reach those conclusions based on a cursory reading of the electoral results. After all, the Conservative Party (the Tories), gained seats in Parliament, while Labor lost a substantial portion of its majority. But the two outcomes are not necessarily related.

Mr. Blair entered office in 1997 promoting a new era of Clinton-like “Third Way” politics. To be sure, his new Labor Party still tilted decidedly leftward, yet he also championed market-oriented reforms and a strong national defense. Labor’s significant decline since then could partially be attributed to the war in Iraq — which was never popular among British voters — as well as crumbling public services like the transportation and health systems. Labor’s top officials will undoubtedly blame Mr. Blair for their party’s continued decline and look to his successor, Treasury Chancellor Gordon Brown — a thoroughly left-leaning politician — as their future leader. As a result, Mr. Blair will probably not complete his five-year term. Instead, he might be forced to hand the prime ministership over to Mr. Brown in time for the 2006 by-elections.

The Tories ostensibly had a better-than-expected election, though dark clouds loom on the horizon. First, their gains in southeast England and London represent seats lost to Labor in the 1997 and 2001 elections, in locations where voters are predominately moderate. In other words, aside from winning a few seats in Scotland, the Tories simply reclaimed seats that they should never have lost. Also, the Tories weren’t able to campaign on a thoroughly conservative platform. With Labor, the Liberal Democratic Party and the left-of-center media blasting them on all sides, the Tories were reduced to focusing almost exclusively on a stricter immigration policy and more police officers. This isn’t exactly the formula for a national party. Rather, it looks as if the Tories are in danger of becoming a regional party for southern England.

Tory leader Michael Howard, who has already announced he will resign, should be commended for his efforts, but his party has a long way to go to reach the popularity it enjoyed under former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Waiting in the wings on the political left are the Liberal Democrats, who increased their percentage of the vote by several points over 2001. These are modest gains. But they are also signs that their nearest ideological alternative, the Labor Party, can no longer ignore them.

So, the evidence seems to suggest that Britain is steadily shifting leftward along with the rest of Europe. Although victorious, Labor will probably abandon its moderate-to-conservative positions on the war and other issues in the coming years, much as the Democratic Party has done in the United States. And until the Tories can come up with a clear conservative message, their political prognosis looks even more grim.

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