Sun, May 08, 2005 - Page 9 News List

The magician who fell to earth

Blair's face-slapping by the British electorate may in the end turn out to be a good thing for the nation's democracy

By Jonathan Freedland  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON


Most among the long faces of the UK's Labour Party was this fact: a party which had never won two full terms in government won a third.

That is not to be dismissed. There was a time, back in the 1980s, when such a feat seemed to be the remotest fantasy.

Even the midnight rumors of a Labour parliamentary majority of 50, later revised, would once have thrilled, rather than crushed, the party's supporters. In 1974, for example, that kind of margin would have felt like a landslide. And, lest we forget, Margaret Thatcher started a revolution in 1979 with a majority of just 44. A sober view would say that Thursday was no disaster, merely a sign that, as David Blunkett declared, "normal politics has returned" -- that the rhythms of the 1960s and 1970s had been restored.

But that's not how it felt for a few jittery hours as Thursday turned into Friday. For among "New Labour's" many rewritings of the political rule book was its alteration of our sense of scale. The triple-digit wins of 1997 and 2001 made landslides seem normal, so that anything less looked like failure. And in the small hours of Friday, as result after result showed a sharp plunge in the Labour vote, the fear of failure was palpable.

There were important Labour holds -- the party fended off strong challenges in the totemic New Labour seat of Birmingham Edgbaston as well as in Hove and Ynys Mon -- but also some painful defeats. A giant swing to the Liberal Democrats in the middle-class north London seat of Wood Green and Hornsey toppled former minister Barbara Roche -- one of the clearest proofs that the war on Iraq cost Labour dear.

But it was more than seats which fell: some of "New Labour's" defining myths tumbled, too.

First and most obvious to go was the legend of Prime Minister Tony Blair's infallibility. As soon as he was elected Labour leader in 1994, he had seemed to have a magic touch: cartoonists showed him walking on water. Last night the magician fell to earth. He won a viable, working majority -- the achievement of a mortal, rather than a sorcerer. And what few Labourites would deny is that the leader who was once his party's shiniest electoral asset became, in 2005, an obstacle to be overcome. The Lib Dem surge was caused by antipathy to the Iraq war, of course, but it was also a function of the new Blair factor -- the sentiment among many former Labour voters that they would rather switch parties than endorse "that man."

The second New Labour belief to take a hit was the strategy of the big tent. The original Blair triumph was to make his party a coalition so capacious it had room for the left and right, stretching from unreconstructed socialist Tony Benn to former Tories.

On Thursday the coalition came under strain from both directions. Its left flank peeled off, dismayed by the Iraq war, by tuition fees for university students, by the assault on civil liberties, by the erosion of trust in the prime minister. Those voters wandered out of the tent into the arms of the Lib Dems and others.

But there was pressure from the right, too. The Conservatives blew their dog whistle on immigration and asylum and, in parts of the country, voters who had moved from Conservative to Labour in 1997 pricked up their ears and ran back home. Peterborough, Putney and Ilford North slipped from red to blue.

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