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Home > Special Topics > Europe Report Last Updated: 15:17 03/09/2007
Europe Report #142: May 9, 2005

UK Post-Election Analysis: Can Blair survive?

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times) and Kevin Cooney (Associate Professor of Political Science, Union University)

The UK election was held on 5th May 2005 and saw the incumbent Labour government win a historic third term but with a sharply reduced majority. With just 35.2% of the vote, it has returned to office with the lowest share of the vote in British history. This is surprising given Labour's impressive track record over the last eight years and the good state of the British economy.

The party's less than spectacular performance was attributed to voter displeasure with Prime Minister Tony Blair and his decision to join the US-led invasion of Iraq. This has generated huge media speculation about his future and whether he will soon be replaced by his popular finance minister, Gordon Brown. Several prominent Labour lawmakers have already called for Blair to step down within a year and pressure for him to go is growing.

The final results were Labour 356 seats with a 35.2% share of the vote, Conservatives 197 seats with a 32.3% share of the vote, the Liberal Democrats 62 seats with 22.0% and other parties won 31 seats with a 10.5% share of the vote.

The Blair Factor

Kevin Cooney: As both an outsider and an American I will approach my analysis of the British election as a Political Scientist and as a political strategist. I have seen two polls (pre-election) that indicated that 58-65% of Labour voters do not want to see Tony Blair step down before his term is over. I believe these are Blair loyalists and centrist voters that Tony Blair brought into the Labour Party for these last three elections.

Sean Curtin: I have not seen the polls you refer to, but presumably many of those who voted for the Labour Party are happy to see Tony Blair as its leader. However, the problem for the party is the millions of their former supporters who abstained from voting because of Blair and those who switched to the anti-war Liberal Democrats in protest. Remember that Labour only got 35.2% of the vote and that turnout was about 61%, the second worst figure ever.

Kevin Cooney: One has to be careful when interpreting the political opinions of nonvoters. Some are likely disgusted with Blair and not inclined to vote for any other party. Others may just be backing the status-quo. It was widely known in advance that Labour would win the only suspense was by how much.

Many voters knowing this might have chosen to just not bother to vote. If Tony Blair is ousted by the Labour Party, the next election might see these voters reexamining their participation. A swing back toward the Tories as the party of the right and "middle" might be the result depending on the leadership of both the Tories and Labour. In the aftermath of the May 5th election, Labour needs to be careful how they treat Tony Blair. A sudden shift to the left could likely bring about a Tory resurgence.

Sean Curtin: This argument depends on who replaces Blair. At the moment, both Labour and the Conservatives are occupying the middle ground. I think the shift to the left by the Liberal Democrats accounts for the Tory resurgence against them in the seats where the two are the main competing parties.

Kevin Cooney: Most of the Liberal-Democrats gains were at Labour expense, but the Liberal Democrats gained these seats by moving to the political left of Labour which marks in many ways a radical realignment of British politics, if it holds. The Conservatives on the other hand made gains in seats that they have traditionally held before Tony Blair and "New Labour" that reached toward the middle. If Labour moves to the left too much in order to gain ground lost, then it will be the Tories that will be the beneficiary of disenchanted swing voters in the middle.

Sean Curtin: I agree that Labour will suffer in those former Tory seats that they still hold if they shift to the left. However, in this election I think there were several reasons the Conservatives recaptured former seats from Labour. The main ones were: 1) local constituency issues energized voters against Labour; 2) strong Tory candidates attracted floating voters; 3) the Tory agenda and party appealed to people in these particular seats; and 4) Tory-supporting newspapers have ruthlessly attacked Blair's honesty over the war, making Labour less attractive than last time.

Kevin Cooney: I agree with you that the Tories re-energized their base with their attacks on Blair's honesty, however it is ironic that had the Tories been in power they would have likely pursued the same policy in Iraq that Blair did.

On the other hand, it is important for Labour voters to remember that as much as the Iraq war was an issue for this election, the war is over. Tony Blair has been a great leader for them and he still has great political instincts. The political middle largely stuck with Tony Blair this time. The question is will they stick with Labour next time minus Blair?

Sean Curtin: I think Iraq is still an important issue in UK politics, but as you say by the time of the next election, in four or five years' time, it may not be. In his first two elections, Tony Blair certainly was a tremendous vote-winner, but polling evidence from this election clearly shows that this time around he was a vote-loser. Labour won despite Blair.

Many of those floating voters who stuck with Labour this time did it largely on the basis of Labour's excellent economic record and the unspoken promise that the party's popular finance minister, Gordon Brown, would soon be taking over as prime minister.

Kevin Cooney: Pundits and party hacks will spin the election results anyway they want, but the bottom line is how the voters behave at the polls. While the war was an issue this election it will likely not be an issue in the next one. The Labour Party needs to ask itself, in absence of the divisive issue of War in Iraq, who can lead us best in the next election to a fourth victory?

Sean Curtin: On the one hand, you can say Labour won an unprecedented third term in office with a very healthy 66-seat majority, but you could also equally say Labour's majority was drastically reduced by over 100 and they were reelected with just 35.2% of the vote, the lowest level of support for a government in electoral history. What is not in dispute is that Labour lost a lot of support from its core voters and that the unpopularity of Tony Blair was a key factor.

The question of who should lead Labour is very much the political issue of the moment and Labour lawmakers are hotly debating it. Many say that the appeal of Gordon Brown saved them from defeat while others are already publicly calling for Blair to go.

Kevin Cooney: There is no question that Tony Blair's choice to side with Bush in Iraq cost him politically, both in popularity and in legacy. However, if I were a member of the Tory leadership I would prefer to face Brown rather than Blair for a fourth time all things being equal. I believe that the Blair naysayers need to be careful about reading too much into the election results.

Sean Curtin: I personally think that Tony Blair is an exceptionally gifted individual and the greatest political performer of his generation. However, I also believe that the Iraq war seriously damaged his reputation and despite his long list of attributes many people no longer trust him. While Brown does not shine like Blair, he is trusted by voters and polls indicate he would be a better vote-puller for Labour.

Kevin Cooney: I couldn't agree with you more on your analysis of Tony Blair. No matter how a person feels about the war, contrary to those who call him a liar, Blair did what he felt was both right morally and for Britain even when he knew he would pay a huge political price. This level of integrity is rare in politics and I respect Tony Blair for it.

Looking once again at the election, Labour's big advantage is a gerrymandered system in their favor. However, Labour's first two election wins were on the strength of their move to the middle under Tony Blair's "New Labour." Even though Brown is part of the "New Labour" movement his elevation to Prime minister would be seen as a shift to the left for Labour in that it caters to the leftwing of the party. The question is how many swing voters will vote for Brown versus the next Tory leader?

Sean Curtin: I agree that Blair was the chief architect of Labour's first two election victories, but this time around he dragged them down. The Labour administration went to the polls with an impressive track record of achievements and a buoyant economy but only garnered 35.2% of the vote. It is true that the current first-past-the-post system allowed them to win a totally disproportionate number of seats. However, the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are now extremely well placed for the next election and will pose a far greater threat to Labour next time. I do not see that a Brown premiership would be seen as a shift to the left, but he would certainly be less reforming than Blair.

Kevin Cooney: Can the anti-war left within Labour get beyond their opposition to Blair's support for the war and work with him in the future?

Sean Curtin: From my observations, not really. It is a matter of principle that still fires the passions of these MPs. They strongly believe Blair must resign for supporting the invasion of Iraq. Blair did expel his most extreme critic, George Galloway, from the party, but this move backfired. Galloway, who is famous for his bitter opposition to the war, formed his own little anti-war party, Respect, and stood against a Blair loyalist who supported the war. Galloway was completely written off as without big funding and a powerful party-machine one issue candidates are normally slaughtered at the polls. The fact that Galloway won was one of the main post-election stories, and a deep embarrassment for Blair. Galloway's return as a lawmaker will be a constant reminder of the war and his against-the-odds win guarantees continued publicity for the issue.

Kevin Cooney: Given this continuing opposition to Blair, do you see Brown as supporting a quick ouster of Blair or letting Blair set his own timetable for departure?

Sean Curtin: Some political analysts reckon Blair will step down in about 18 months, others say within a year or sooner. Blair loyalists say he will be around for another three years at least. I think Brown would like to takeover in about a year or so. Blair knows this and is also aware of the political debt he owes Brown. During the campaign they were together constantly, and on several occasion Brown robustly defended Blair over the war. Analysts say that Blair has 46 loyalist lawmakers while Brown has 47. The remainder will support whoever they think is best for the party and at the moment that is Brown. You also have a group of between 40 to 50 MPs that are against Blair because of Iraq and other issues. So, the political arithmetic favours Brown.

Kevin Cooney: I personally believe that the "two for the price of one" campaign strategy while keeping some Labour voters loyal also cost Labour seats to the Tories who prefer the charismatic Blair over Brown who while popular is dull when compared to Blair. This is similar to Bill Clinton and Al Gore in the USA. For all of his personal liabilities Clinton, like Blair, can win elections.

Sean Curtin: I disagree. I think a lot of Tory voters who returned to the fold did so partly because of the vicious campaign against Blair in the Tory-supporting press. They basically branded Blair a liar over Iraq. Conservative leader Michael Howard constantly repeated this claim in the election campaign saying you simply could not trust Blair because he did not tell the truth over Iraq. Never before has the leader of the opposition labeled the Prime Minister a liar and there was a debate about whether it was appropriate to do so. Your Clinton-Gore Blair-Brown comparison is good as Brown certainly lacks the radiant qualities of Blair.

Kevin Cooney: In my opinion, if Brown decides to push for Tony Blair's ouster, he might want to hold off in becoming Prime Minister until after the UK votes on the EU constitution. If France votes down the EU constitution as expected on May 29th there will be little pressure on the UK to ratify the treaty. Thus it is likely (as it is anyway) that Britain will vote down the EU constitution. Brown probably does not want to be the Prime Minister responsible for losing the vote even if he is skeptical on some level about the EU and the Euro. Brown may want Blair to take the political responsibility for the defeat of the EU constitution and use that event to push him out of 10 Downing Street. Brown as the price for loyalty should make Tony Blair take the fall for as many negative/unpopular Labour policies as possible before riding in on his "white horse" in two to three years' time.

This is the second part of our UK election analysis, read the first part here.

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