Blair takes a beating

Print edition : July 02, 2004

The public disquiet about Iraq and disapproval of Prime Minister Tony Blair's unflinching loyalty to the rightwing U.S. administration result in a seismic collapse in Labour support.

THE fact that three elections were held on one day, European Parliament, local and London Mayoral, meant that June 10 became quite a useful test of the state of the United Kingdom parties. However, interpreting the results was complicated by the fact that three separate voting systems were used. The local government elections were held under the traditional British "first past the post system". The elections to the London Assembly and for the London Mayoral race were held on the basis of voters being able to give a first and second preference votes, whereas the European Parliament elections took place on a complicated system of proportional representation (P.R.).

When the idea of different voting systems for different elections was first mooted, pessimists suggested that the British voters might get confused. Quite the contrary seems to have happened; the voters have very quickly worked out how to exploit the different systems to give themselves more choice.

The local government elections offer the more exact measure of party support because the voters are electing the representatives who run the local services, transport, social services and education.

The total votes cast show a seismic collapse in Labour support. Labour was expected to do badly but actually came third in the popular vote, scoring only 26 per cent, compared to the Liberal Democrats' 29 per cent and the Tories' 38 per cent.

It is the first time in British electoral history that a ruling party has come third in a nationwide poll.

Most damaging was the collapse of Labour support in traditional northern cities, long the bedrock of Labour. It lost Newcastle and Leeds for the first time in over 30 years.

The cause is not simply the continuous disquiet about Iraq but a growing perception that Prime Minister Tony Blair shows more loyalty to the most rightwing United States administration for decades than to his own party's sensitivities. Blair's moral conviction that history will absolve his decision to join the U.S. invasion of Iraq is dispiriting Labour activists who voted in large numbers for the openly anti-war Liberal Democrats and also for other more radical groupings, such as the Greens.

The London elections, though producing a victory for incumbent Mayor Ken Livingstone, now happily returned to the Labour fold, offered a bitter comfort.

Livingstone, whom Blair predicted would be a "disaster" for London, proved much more popular than the party rejoined. He polled 35 per cent of the first preference votes whilst London only polled 25 per cent in the elections to the London Assembly. Livingstone also proved the old political adage that voters like an outspoken character and his election campaign contained one of his typical utterances, which delight his fans and horrify the image conscious New Labourites. On hearing of the assassinations of Westerners in Saudi Arabia, "Red" Ken opined that he would not be troubled to hear that the Saudi royal Family has been strung up from the lamp posts.

The London Mayoral race also produced the election's best quip, when Livingstone's Tory opponent, Steve Norris, said Livingstone was the only man this year to join the Labour Party.

BUT if the local election results were seismic in magnitude, the Euro results were a disaster off the Richter scale, not only for the Labour Party but for the Tories, too.

The P.R. system does give smaller parties a better chance and previous Euro elections have shown that the voters appreciate and can exploit the opportunity the election offers for thumbing their noses at the establishment.

In the total national vote, Labour came second with a mere 22 per cent, its lowest share since 1910. The Tories fared equally badly, polling 27 per cent, their lowest total since the Great Reform Act of 1832 extended the franchise. Such abysmal results produced another staggering statistic, that is, it is the first time in the modern era that less than half the electorate voted for the two major parties.

The main beneficiary of this widespread disillusionment was not the traditional third party, the Liberal Democratic Party either (it got 16 per cent) but the quixotic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which polled 17 per cent. Its only platform is to take the U.K. out of the European Union and it won seats in all regions, doing particularly well in the East Midlands where it was led by charismatic daytime TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk. In the 1970s, Kilroy-Silk was a dashing young Labour Member of Parliament, tipped to go far, but he gave up his career to go into day-time TV, which was regarded then, even more than nowadays, as strictly down-market in TV taste. He has built up a large fan base over the years and seemed to be settled into the life of a "C list celebrity". However, recent events in West Asia led Kilroy-Silk to make a wild-eyed attack on the Arab world saying Arab culture had produced nothing. He was promptly sacked by the British Broadcasting Corporation and emerged overnight as a convinced Euro-sceptic. In the East Midlands region, led by Kilroy-Silk, the UKIP polled a staggering 26 per cent.

The Greens also polled well, though they did not increase the two seats and as the votes rolled in, region after region showed more people voting for non-mainstream parties.

The old British political order of Centre-Left and Centre-Right block parties accruing mass support, inherited from the 19th century, is crumbling rapidly.

Michael Hindley was a Labour Party member of the European Parliament from 1984 to 1999.

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