Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Blair's Swan Song And The Road Ahead

Before turning to elections over our way, I thought it may be interesting to dirty our collective hands on the electoral situation that is developing in the U.K. No, it is not yet time for a general election, but the waters are churning even before the end of the 2006 Labour Party Conference in Manchester.

Labour Party Conference '06: Blair Out: Brown In?

Everyone and their aunt knew that when Tony Blair and the Labour Party (LP) won the last general election last year, the leader of that party and Prime Minister (PM) since 1997 would step down before another election was called. You see, in the UK, elections are not necessarily held on the rigid, every-four (or two)-year schedule as here.

The PM decides when to call a general election based on the political mood of the party, the nation or (usually) for means of political expediency. By law, however, there must be a general election (meaning all 635 seats in the House of Commons) at least once every five years. Blair has been the PM for almost ten years and he wanted to give his successor a decent run-up to the next general election, which will most likely be in 2009 or 2010 (probably).

By means of a short explanation (for those of you who don't know), the British party system is also a bit different than ours in that the leader of the party carries a lot more weight over there than here. In fact, it is usually the leader of the party who becomes that parties incumbent (or candidate) for PM. All of this was in flux during the LP's Party Conference this year (a party conference is much like a political party convention in the U.S.)

Of course, there were the speeches by the now somewhat lame-duck Blair. You know the sort of thing: reflect on the legacy, forging a new and better Britain and world for the kids, regret differences with opponents. Read a summary of Blair's version in his farewell to the party here. If you don't want to read it, just think of the lyrics to the song "My Way," and you get the idea.

There was also a speech given by our very own ex-president Bill "I Really Tried To Get Osama" Clinton. Apparently, the Bill Clinton Admiration Society did not have a meeting this week and he was free to speak in Manchester. All joking aside, I agree with the commentary in the Manchester Guardian in that Clinton's liberal standing and manner, coupled with his image (on the rise, given the current president's woes), was just what the LP conference needed. Clinton reminded the crowd not to take their out-going leader for granted, to look to the future and keep policy at the forefront...

The Battle for LP Leadership: Phase One

...which is often hard in the personality-driven scramble for the party leadership which will last from now until Blair steps down and then until the next general election. The heir-apparent, for some time now, has been current Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown. He has been the Chancellor since 1997 and has received mixed reviews on his performance, seeing unemployment drop and the economy generally rise, but saddling the government with new debts. What has been the more contentious issue is a long-term personality clash between Blair and Brown.

Blair, like his hero Bill Clinton, came on to a political nation in turmoil. In 1997, the Conservative Party (Tories) had been in control of the government since 1979. Under Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990), the UK had generally done well economically and unemployment had gotten better than it had been under LP governments in the 1960's and 1970's (which is not saying much). Under Thatcher's successor, John Major, things got appreciably worse. Inflation spiked, unemployment reared its ugly head and problems continued (as ever) in Northern Ireland. Blair, when he seized the leadership of the LP in 1994, he aggressively set about reforming his party's image and game-plan.

The LP, in the Thatcher and Major years, had been pretty firmly in the control of what came to be known as "Old Labour," or less complimentarily the "Looney Left." These were a smattering of old leftists, socialists, communists and other bits and pieces of previous regimes whose fractiousness helped lead to Thatcher's initial victory in 1979. Blair sought to purge the party of these elements and remake the LP into a modern, social-democratic party. In that, and the birth of "New Labour," he was quite successful, winning the 1997 general election and two more after that.

Gordon Brown, who has been with Blair from the start, is really none of those things that made Blair so popular. He is not charismatic or even terribly at home in front of the press. He made his reputation as a tough policy man, working in the Treasury to implement the changes that made Britain prosper again in the late 1990's and into the 21st century. He has also been the heir-apparent since at least just before the 2003 general election if not more. One could see how the two could conflict and how Brown could have a different leadership style and policy agenda than Blair.

This, naturally, leads to speculation about...

Is Brown The Man?

Here is where my opinion comes into play. Gordon Brown, unless he makes really bad mistakes or decides to piss the boss off in his last months, will be the choice to succeed Blair as PM. That being said, one must account for the fact that the press and public in the UK don't necessarily like being presented with a political fait accompli.

This means BECAUSE Brown is the front-runner now, he might not get it. Counterintuitive? Yes, but this is, after all, the squalid politics of personality. In that light, read the excellent commentary in the Times by former Tory Opposition Leader Michael Portillo on the "death of policy" in British politics and the somewhat undue focus on personality (oh, if we could ever deal with this one...).

So, who, then? Could be any one of a half a dozen or more. Take a look at the possible list of challengers from Blair's Cabinet (and party at large) and their respective claims/chances. Challengers for the leadership of a British political party usually come from the ranks of the Cabinet (in the case of the Government party) and the Shadow Cabinet (in the case of the Opposition).

From what I have seen, the ones to keep and eye on are current Home Secretary John Reid, who has held top positions in government, has a no-nonsense approach to tough policy decisions and is often seen as one of Blair's closest confidants and hatchet men. Look to Reid to be a favorite among those who are ardent Blairites and the "anyone but Gordon Brown" choice. Also not to be ignored is current Education Secretary Alan Johnson, who's star has been on the rise for some time and his promotion to Education this summer made him a real challenger. Also among my three possibles is current Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, who has made no bones about the fact that he wants to be in LP leadership and will stake his reputation (which is quite good) to get it.

Other less likely candidates can be seen in the aforementioned summary. For future watchers, keep an eye on Jon Cruddas and David Miliband - they are the next generation, as it were.

The Conservatives: Their Game Plan

The Tories with their (relatively) new leader David Cameron, MP (Witney) are, naturally, keeping an eye on the whole affair, most especially I imagine the rift in the leadership and a possible challenge. What they might even want more is for Brown to get the leadership, cause a rift in the LP and face the next general election against a split and rancorous LP. I am sure there is nothing they want more.

Until then, Cameron and the Tories will continue to press their agenda of change from the Blair orthodoxy, a possible reordering of foreign policy and maybe even different steps in the relationship of the Union and the U.K. to the European Union. This is all leading to their party conference next weekend (10/1-10/4) in Bournemouth. It will be interesting to see what emerges.

The Liberal-Democrats: The Tipping Point?

Lastly, one must consider Britain's "other" party, the Liberal-Democrats (Lib-Dems), in the equation. With the LP split and the Tories trying to capitalize, the Lib-Dems might be the hinge in the next general election. With their reconfirmed leader in the person of Sir Menzies Campbell and their "damn all" approach to the LP and the Tories, the party has a real chance...that is if they can woo middle class swing voters in London and the Home Counties to leave Labour or Conservatives and go their way. Here is a good piece of commentary by Matthew Parris in the Times about a possible winning strategy for "Ming" Campbell and the Lib Dems.

So What?

I know, a pretty long piece about the government of somewhere else. It interests me, though, and I think that as (for better or worse) our "special relationship" remains, what happens in the U.K. matters here.

Or not. Up to you, really.

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