LONDON — So powerful has been Prime Minister Tony Blair’s dominance of British politics that Thursday’s General Election has resolved into one question: Are you for or against his leadership?
The main opposition party, the Conservatives led by Michael Howard, have discovered that the one issue that has salience is Blair himself. Despite the years of attempted renewal, their heap of policy documents might as well be in the recycle bin. Carefully worked out details on taxes, hospitals, the European Union prompt no spark in the electorate.
Target voters come to life on the matter of Blair . . . and “asylum seekers” — any admission of foreigners to this country. This issue briefly, to leftwing alarm, seemed likely to lift the Tories into power on a silent surge of animosity to aliens. Yet even the racism that has been the bedrock of much Conservative support has failed to prove sufficiently dynamic to deflect attention from Blair.
This concentration on one person has happened by consensus, a slippage by right, left and center, and it appears to have been produced by a mutual aversion to political conflict.
Take the war on Iraq and the subsequent occupation and chaotic attempts to turn Iraq into a new, safe port for neoliberal capitalism. “Iraq” dominated the election debate for the week preceding the election, but the heated debate was not actually about Iraq, why the war happened or what has been taking place since. It has come down to one question: Did Blair lie about the reasons for Britain’s joining the U.S. assault? In particular, it has been about whether Blair lied about the advice given to him by the attorney general on whether such an assault was legal.
This focus on law and lying seems to evade politics. Here, I agree with the prime minister: He made a judgment; do the citizens agree with his judgment or not. I for one do not, but I do not think he lied. He did what all politicians do and must do; he took advice and information from military, civil servants, legal officers and used and presented those bits of advice that supported his argument.
The implication of what Howard has been saying is that government should be run, not by elected politicians, but by “neutral” state officers. But since Howard and most Tories supported the war — and not because they were convinced by dodgy dossiers or bowdlerized advice from the attorney general but because they, perhaps even more than Blair, shared U.S. President George W. Bush’s approach to “terrorism” and Arab state oil regimes — they cannot now initiate a political argument about the war. Politically, they are on the same side as New Labour.
The term “New Labour” is another reason why Blair is the focus of this election. A significant proportion of the left is alienated by the Labour government. They are alienated for a variety of reasons ranging from outrage at the war, through fundamental hostility to the way procapitalist social democracy has usurped socialism, to pique at being left out of the government’s circle of advisers, movers and shakers.
These can be brought together in a deceptively unitary hostility to New Labour as an artifact created by Blair for the sole purpose of destroying the promise of socialism and thus allowing Britain to nestle into the armpit of Bush.
This focus on Blair’s betrayal means many fundamental arguments can be shelved: For instance, given that the socialist left was decisively rejected by the electors and defeated by Margaret Thatcher for almost two decades, how would it go about winning mass popular support for a socialist project? Given the precipitous decline of trade unionism in Britain and the unbroken upward soar of private home ownership, where is the proletarian mass on which all aspirations to socialism are based?
These are arguments that were actually held in the 1980s and ’90s (and the election of Blair first as Labour leader then as prime minister is one answer to those debates); but the left has never followed through with any discussion about how leftwing people build a leftwing movement, and with what aims. It got stuck with a simmering, uncreative resentment of Blair. So the focus on his leadership is an easy evasion of politics.
The party expected to gain the most new votes Thursday is the Liberal Democrats, led by a small ginger-haired Scot called Charles Kennedy. He is not an impressive figure, being plumply laid back, vague about details of policy and seeming to have more of a pleasure in the comforts of life than appetite for political war. However, this is part of his charm, and the attraction of his party.
The LibDems, and the two small nationalist parties of Wales and Scotland, comprised the parliamentary opposition to the war in Iraq (along with many backbench Labour members of Parliament). It is expected that this will win the party a good chunk of the disaffected left. The LibDems also have expressed the most opposition to the domestic consequences of the “war against terror.” This, in particular, means holding suspects without charge, legal representation or trial, although identity cards — presented as something else in the armor of the war against terror — have been in state planning processes since long before 9/11.
The LibDems are also positive about the EU — as are most of the left, seeing it as a bulwark against American global dominance and a route out of Little Englandism. And it is assumed — though here with no good reason — that they would be far bolder in pushing through measures against the companies and lifestyles that do most to damage the environment.
Yet the nice LibDems, who do struggle not to descend into the bear pit of party political abuse, appear by the same token to avoid engaging on issues of class conflict and inequality. Voting LibDem may well make many an old leftist feel better about him or herself, but the price of this moral peace of mind may be to opt out of the conflict that is politics.
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