Blair Wins Easy Reelection Labor Party to Keep Wide Majority in Parliament

By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, June 8, 2001; Page A01

LONDON, June 8 (Friday) -- British voters gave Prime Minister Tony Blair a resounding victory in Thursday's election and a powerful mandate for the "radical change" he has promised in the nation's antique class structure and crumbling public infrastructure.

By 6 a.m. (1 a.m EDT), with 628 of the races for the 659-seat House of Commons declared, Labor had 412 seats compared with 160 seats for the Conservative Party, its chief opposition. Labor's landslide would be comparable to its victory four years ago in the prior national election. The Conservative Party's anemic showing likely means the ax for the party's embattled leader, William Hague.

Blair rode to victory on a tide of economic good news -- the lowest unemployment, inflation and mortgage rates in a generation -- and a fairly centrist first term in which he convinced a once-skeptical public that the Labor Party could be trusted with power. But he indicated during the campaign that he will move left. "No radical, reforming government has ever done it all in the first term," he told voters. "We will go much further."

That shift should produce considerably higher spending on the nation's decrepit schools, hospitals and transit terminals. Blair 's aides also say he will mount an attack on lingering bastions of social privilege -- particularly on such prestigious universities as Oxford and Cambridge, where the admissions process is still heavily tilted toward elite prep schools.

"A lot done, a lot to do," Blair said early today, after winning reelection to his own parliamentary seat in Sedgefield in northeastern England. His goal now, he said, is to build a country "in which ambition and compassion lie easily with each other."

Labor's overwhelming victory was a clear affirmation of the center-left trend in European governments -- a trend that was interrupted briefly by Silvio Berlusconi's narrow victory in Italy last month. When President Bush makes his first official visit to Europe next week, two-thirds of the 18 leaders he will meet will be leftists of one degree or another.

Still, the Labor win here should pose no problem for Bush. Blair has defined Britain as a "bridge nation" linking the European Union with the United States. Accordingly, he has said it is "absolutely crucial" for him to have a good working relationship with the new U.S. president.

While other European leaders have openly disagreed with Bush on such issues as national missile defense, the Kyoto global warming agreement and use of the death penalty, Blair has kept a diplomatic silence -- doing so deliberately, his aides say, to keep the "bridge" between London and Washington in a good state of repair.

The liberal mood of the electorate was also reflected in a record-high vote for Britain's third-largest party, the Liberal Democrats, who ran to the left of Blair on a platform calling for higher taxes and expanded government. The Liberal Democrats were projected to win about 52 seats.

The runaway Labor win was among the biggest reelection victories in British history. The only dark spot for Blair was the voter turnout, which could fall below 60 percent, an appalling performance by British standards. Many voters apparently abstained because the media have been predicting the Labor landslide for months. Blair's new government can serve a maximum of five years; British governments traditionally serve about four years before calling another election.

Blair's performance during the campaign makes it hard to predict whether he will try to take Britain into the European single currency. The euro will replace marks, liras, francs and other currencies in 12 countries on Jan. 1. Currency traders around the world, assuming that Blair will lead Britain to adopt the euro, sent the British pound tumbling to its lowest level against the dollar in 15 years this week.

But the traders may be off the mark. The prime minister and his team sounded indifferent at best toward the euro throughout the campaign. In an interview with the BBC late Thursday, Blair's chief lieutenant, finance secretary Gordon Brown, showed minimal enthusiasm for the new currency, saying only, "We will take a look at the matter in the first two years" of the new government.

Blair's reelection Thursday surpasses the overwhelming victories rung up by the formidable Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative leader who dominated British politics in the 1980s. Thatcher's biggest margin in the House of Commons was a majority of 144 seats. Blair had a 179-seat majority after the 1997 election, and is expected to get a majority of about 165 seats this time..

Blair seems determined to turn further away from "Thatcherism," the low-tax, market-oriented approach to economic and social policy. "The Thatcher era is behind us, and not a minute too soon," Blair said this week.

While Thatcher boasted of her drive to cut government spending, Blair has promised major budget increases for education, welfare and the free cradle-to-grave medical care provided by the National Health Service.

Labor's campaign "manifesto" -- what U.S. parties would call a platform -- promised the hiring of 20,000 more nurses, 10,000 more doctors and 10,000 more teachers.

On the other hand, Blair also hinted that he might try to enlist the private sector to build hospitals and clinics for the National Health Service to use, a break with its all-government tradition. For a Labor Party leader to move in that direction is akin to Richard Nixon going to China.

The biggest shake-up Blair has in mind, though, is his commitment to attack the established social structure in a nation that still pays deference to inherited title and privilege.

In his standard stump speech during the campaign, Blair reminded voters of a dictum once taught to every British child: "Know your place in society."

"I hate that old phrase," the prime minister said. "The only place anyone should know is the place they earn through merit."

Blair's aides say his campaign for meritocracy will begin with public pressure on leading colleges to recruit and accept more students from public high schools, and from ethnic minorities. Only one-third of British high school students go to college, and higher education is primarily reserved for people in the upper brackets. Blair has set a goal of 50 percent college attendance by 2010, with most of the increase coming from state-supported schools.

With a majority in the House of Commons, Blair, the party leader, will become prime minister again and will appoint a cabinet probably drawn entirely from his own party.

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