Red is the color of the British Labor Party. Last week, British voters were a little too red for Prime Minister Tony Blair. The election of Mr. Ken Livingstone, known as “Red Ken” for his feisty leftwing politics, as London’s first directly elected mayor, left Mr. Blair with a nasty black eye, but that was only the most visible bruise. His Labor Party was battered in local elections throughout the country. Mr. Blair’s honeymoon is over. British voters want tangible results from the Labor government.
In one sense, Mr. Blair owes Mr. Livingstone. “Red Ken” was the most visible member of “the loony left” when he led the Greater London Council during the 1980s. When then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, out of frustration, abolished the council in 1986, she paved the way for Mr. Blair to take control of the Labor Party and steer it back toward the center.
In a manner of speaking, Mr. Blair has returned the favor. Part of the effort was deliberate. The prime minister has supported the devolution of power. Direct election of the mayor of London was a basic part of that program, as was the creation of assemblies in Wales and Scotland. At the same time, Mr. Blair’s efforts to ensure that “his” candidate won the Labor Party nomination for the post were heavy-handed. They alienated most voters and virtually guaranteed that Mr. Livingstone would win last week’s vote.
But Mr. Blair has to be worried about more than the prospect of Mr. Livingstone re-emerging as a rival. (As mayor of the largest city in Britain, and one of the business, economic and trading centers of the world, Mr. Livingstone will have high public visibility. After the results were known, both men pledged to work together.) The outcome of local elections held throughout Britain signals increasing frustration with the government. Mr. Livingstone’s win was not an isolated example.
In elections for more than 3,300 seats on 152 local councils, Labor lost ground. The Conservative Party gained 593 seats in the voting, while Mr. Blair’s party lost 568. Analysts had suggested that the Conservatives would need to claim at least 500 seats to show that they were a viable opposition.
Midterm votes are usually considered referendums on the government. They are a way to register protest with national policies without risking too much. For Mr. Blair, who is thought to be considering an early election next year, the results are sobering, but not surprising. After three years in office, the honeymoon is supposed to be over.
The key for the prime minister is to deliver on the hopes that propelled him into the government. The faltering Northern Ireland peace process was a blow. Last weekend’s announcement that Mr. Blair and his counterpart, Irish Prime Minister Bernie Ahern, had agreed on a plan to revive the power-sharing government in Belfast that was suspended earlier this year will help polish the British prime minister’s image.
Equally important will be an end to squabbling over economic policy. Last month’s surprise announcement by BMW that it would close its Rover plant and throw thousands of people out of work only heightened uncertainty among British workers — the core Labor constituency — and underscored the Cabinet’s seeming confusion. The government was caught off-guard and the finger pointing over who was to blame that followed was unseemly. The growing complaints about the value of the British pound only deepen worries about the direction of policy and the competence of policymakers. The economy continues to grow and unemployment has fallen for 13 months, but the prospect of higher interest rates has many young homeowners, another group of Labor supporters, worried.
Nonetheless, Conservative Party head William Hague cannot take too much solace in the election results. His party did well, surpassing most forecasts. But the low turnout rate — one in three voters stayed home — and Mr. Livingstone’s singular personality suggest that Mr. Hague will have a tough time turning disaffection with Labor to his advantage. The loss of a “safe” seat in Romsey is a sign that the Conservatives can take nothing for granted.
Fortunately for the prime minister, there was little colorful language after the results were known. Instead, determination was more the order of the day. Conceding that the message from voters was clear, he pronounced himself “disappointed,” and declared that his party will do what needs to be done. The announcement of the Northern Irish peace plan is a good first step. British voters want their leaders to deliver on past promises, not just make new ones.
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