Longest goodbye

Published : Jun 01, 2007 00:00 IST

When Tony Blair finally announces his retirement as Prime Minister, the political landscape looks bleak for his Labour Party.


BRITAIN'S political landscape is set to change with the end of the Blair era next month after 10 long and often tumultuous years that saw the Labour Party rise from the ashes and descend into what looks like the start of another decline. On May 10, Prime Minister Tony Blair finally broke the suspense over his retirement plans and announced that he would stand down on June 27, though he would stay on in Downing Street until a successor is elected.

In a well-choreographed and highly symbolic move, Blair flew down to his parliamentary constituency of Sedgefield, in the northeast of England, to break the news. "I have come back here, to Sedgefield, to my constituency, where my political journey began and where it is fitting it should end," he told a gathering of more than 200 Labour loyalists who had packed into the tiny Trimdon Labour Club. A bigger crowd, clamouring for a wave or a hug from their local hero, waited outside.

The choice of the venue lent an emotional edge to the event. It was in Trimdon that Blair cut his political teeth, and it was from here that he launched his many successful election campaigns. Even when the rest of the country seemed to spurn him, he found himself among friends in Trimdon.

Blair's long-awaited announcement marked the start of the final phase of the longest goodbye in British politics. Ever since he announced two years ago that he would not contest a fourth term, he had been under pressure from disgruntled partymen, whose numbers rose by the day, to set out a timetable for his departure so that his successor had enough time to "rebuild" the party "damaged" by his policies. It was only when push threatened to come to shove that he, eventually, capitulated. The process of electing a new leader will start soon. The election will, of course, be a mere formality as the Labour Party has effectively decided to "coronate" Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown as Britain's next Prime Minister. One by one all potential challengers have opted out: only two minor figures, Michael Meacher and John McDonnell, were left as token contenders.

Those who had demanded a change of leadership are naturally happy. But, ironically, their moment has come at a time when the Labour Party's standing is at an all-time low, as the May 3 elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and hundreds of local English councils showed. The results of what were dubbed Britain's "mini" general elections saw Labour's share of the national vote plunge to its lowest since the nightmarish 1980s when, under the leadership of Michael Foot, the party ceased to be a serious contender for political power. For 18 long years, the party was in the wilderness, returning to power only after it reinvented itself as New Labour under Blair.

"Is New Labour going the Old Labour way?" commentators asked as the results started to trickle in on May 4. It was widely described as a "Black Friday" for the Labour leadership and the media went to town with headlines variously describing the outcome as a "battering" and an "election calamity" for Labour. One left-wing newspaper called it "The Final Verdict on Blair".

Besides losing power both in Scotland and Wales, the party suffered major reverses in England, losing more than 450 seats and control of a number of councils in its worst performance in local elections since it came to power. Conservatives made huge gains in the council polls, mostly at Labour's expense, and claimed that they were "on course" to win the next general elections - a boast that Labour can ignore at its own peril. But it was the verdict from Scotland, traditionally regarded as a Labour stronghold, that was particularly damaging. The party's defeat at the hands of the pro-independence Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), which ended Labour's 50 years of political dominance in Scotland, acquired a particularly ironic overtone at a time when Brown, arguably the most influential Scottish Labour figure, is preparing to enter Downing Street.

Brown's image as the big beast of Scottish politics has suffered a huge blow; the defeat has prompted questions about his legitimacy as the next party leader. The question being asked is, Can the destiny of the party, and indeed the nation, be trusted to a man who was not able to look after his own backyard? As The Guardian pointed out, Brown will need "all his political authority and acumen" to repair the damage. The Independent pointed out that Brown would start out as a "Scottish Prime Minister of Great Britain whose party has been disavowed by Scotland's voters".

"Scotland might not yet be determined on independence, but the possibility will be an albatross around his neck, and Mr Brown's Scottishness will be magnified as a liability in an increasingly nation-conscious England. A full-blown crisis of credibility and constitution may not yet be upon us, but Mr Brown's first weeks at No. 10 will have this shadow over them," it warned.

Alex Salmond, the SNP's media-savvy leader, was quick to appear before television cameras claiming that Scotland had "changed for ever" and that Labour no longer had any "moral authority" to govern Scotland. But it was not necessary to listen to him to recognise the scale of Labour's difficulties. The strength of the anti-Labour sentiment was acknowledged by the party's own regional leader, Jack McConnell, who admitted that it was the "toughest and most hotly contested election in Scottish history".

Indeed, the outcome could have been worse - most pre-election surveys had predicted a Labour "meltdown". If, in the end, the party was able to limit the damage, it was thanks to some explosive campaigning by the party's top leaders and a last-minute surge against the SNP's separatist agenda. But it remained a disgraceful outcome for a party that draws much of its political sustenance from Scotland and gave Scots their own Parliament.

It was the same story in Wales, where Labour ran a minority government before the elections. Though the party remained the single largest, it lost too many seats for it to retain control over the Welsh Assembly and is now desperately looking for allies to form the government.

As for other parties, the Liberal Democrats, who fancy themselves as "king-makers" in the event of a "hung" Parliament after the next general elections, disappointed their supporters. Far from improving their position as they expected to, they lost more than 250 council seats and just about managed to hold their ground in Scotland and Wales.

The Conservative party was the real winner, largely on account of its impressive showing in England. It would be arrogant of Labour to dismiss the claim that it was "ready" to take over; according to opinion polls, if general elections were to be held "tomorrow" the Tories could return to power with a comfortable majority, with Labour reduced to a rump.

So, what has gone wrong with New Labour? Is it simply "midterm blues" after 10 years in power, as party leaders claim? Or are there more fundamental reasons for the party's slow death?

There is temptation in the party to pin the blame for its sorry state on Blair's unpopular policies, especially his slavish pro-United States policy and the invasion of Iraq. But the fact is that the entire top brass, including Brown, was party to the decisions he took. They were in it together and to portray Blair as the villain of the piece is "self-serving nonsense", as one commentator put it. That Blair's personal ratings remain head and shoulders above any other Labour figure, including Brown, should be a sobering thought for his critics as they start to celebrate the end of the Blair era.

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