Democrats Could Profit From Blair's Labor

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, left, campaigning with Finance Minister Gordon Brown, won a third term despite the unpopularity of the war in Iraq.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, left, campaigning with Finance Minister Gordon Brown, won a third term despite the unpopularity of the war in Iraq. (By Stephen Hird -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 8, 2005

LONDON, May 7 -- Can the British Labor Party help the Democrats in the United States find their way back to power? In a week when Prime Minister Tony Blair was humbled by the voters here on the way to a reelection victory, that may be an odd question. But even a damaged Blair and his party offer lessons that analysts on both sides of the Atlantic say could aid the Democrats as they look toward elections in 2006 and 2008.

Blair has been left weakened by Thursday's election, rebuked by voters for his alliance with President Bush as America's staunchest ally in the Iraq war. His future as prime minister may be limited and his party faces turbulence. Still, Labor's three consecutive general election victories constitute a record the party had never achieved and one the Democrats have not realized since the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Politicians and the press here are focused on what went wrong for Blair. For Democrats, the significance of the election may lie as much in the ability of Labor to win an election at a time when its leader was so personally unpopular. The reason is because Labor for now remains the dominant pole in British politics, thanks over the years to Blair's personal talents and the party's success in redefining the landscape.

Once dominated by the left, Labor under Blair won a landslide in 1997 by moving to the middle. In power, Labor has governed with a mix of liberal and conservative policies and an eye on "middle England." Today, the Labor Party occupies a huge amount of space along the political spectrum, so much so that the opposition parties have been forced further to the fringes. "They've done an amazing job of being successfully centrist," said Anthony King, a professor of government at Essex University and an election night analyst for the BBC.

The parallels between Labor and the American Democrats are imperfect. Blair's party won another parliamentary majority Thursday with 36 percent of the vote. Britain's multiparty politics create dynamics that are different from the forces in the United States. The domestic debate begins with acceptance of a governmental role far beyond what it is in the United States. And what works for a party in power is not always the formula for a party seeking power.

Still, for more than a decade, Labor and the Democrats have been something of a shared enterprise, trading on one another's successes, learning from each other's failures. After Thursday, there is something of both for the Democrats to absorb.

The most important may still be Labor's success is sucking up the oxygen of its opponents. In power, Labor has effectively frustrated the once-mighty Conservative Party's efforts to regroup after its 1997 loss. Labor may now be blessed with weak opposition, as one voter told Blair during a TV studio town meeting. But Blair has kept the Tories at bay by never surrendering the issues where Labor -- or the Democrats in the United States -- has natural advantages.

Under the guidance of Gordon Brown, Britain's finance minister and likely prime minister when Blair steps down, Labor has made the economy its number one priority, supporting growth policies that have provided stability and prosperity. On health, education and welfare, Labor has mixed more spending with changes designed to improve the delivery of services.

Much remains on that project, but the mix has been broadly acceptable to a majority of the country. "No one really argued that there was no improvement in public services or the economy," said David Miliband, a former domestic policy adviser to Blair who was named to a cabinet position in the new government. "People could say they wanted more, but they recognized that there was improvement."

Labor also has played aggressively on the opposition's turf. Blair and Labor blunted the Tories' attempt to tap into anti-immigration sentiment with policies designed to protect Britain's borders while making the case that immigration is good for the country. Blair has never forgotten to talk about crime, and while Labor's policies on crime, homeland security and antisocial behavior have angered civil libertarians, they have prevented the Conservatives from gaining traction.

"Blair has left the right with no openings," said Bruce Reed, president of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council in Washington.

The irony for Democrats is that Blair and Brown found the formula for their success by studying the 1992 "New Democrat" campaign that carried Bill Clinton to the presidency. But British analysts see the Democrats as having drifted since the former president left office in 2001, and some Blair advisers believe Clinton's legacy has been squandered.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company