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Politics

Don’t Mention the War

1 May 2005

Don’t Mention the War

By Gwynne Dyer

As sharks respond to blood in the water, so do journalists to panic among politicians — and there is the scent of panic in the air as the British election campaign enters the home stretch. It’s still hard to see how the Conservative opposition could win on 5 May, but there is suddenly a chance that the governing Labour Party could lose its majority in parliament over voter resentment at how Prime Minister Tony Blair dragged the country into war.

Blair almost got away with it. For most of the campaign, he avoided any serious debate on his decision to commit Britain to the invasion of Iraq alongside his friend George W. Bush, and on every other issue he was fireproof. The British economy is among Europe’s healthiest, unemployment is less than half that of France or Germany, and Blair’s government has been pouring money into health and education. Huge numbers of Labour voters felt deceived and betrayed by his Iraq policy, but so long as the war didn’t become a central issue, Labour would cruise safely back into a third term in office.

Then, on 24 April, came the first in a series of well-timed leaks about how Blair tricked his cabinet, his party and the country into believing that the war was legal. All week the media were full of the text of legal opinions previously suppressed by Blair in which his own officials had warned him about the doubtful legality of the war, and retired senior military officers revealed that they had been deeply worried about it, too. The anger that many Labour voters felt about Blair’s deceptions flared up again, and suddenly the election was a horse-race.

Disaffected Labour voters would never give their votes to the Conservatives, whose leader, Michael Howard, had eagerly supported the war — but they might well give them to the third-place Liberal Democrats, the only party that openly opposed the invasion of Iraq. That could turn significant numbers of marginal Labour seats into Lib Dem or even Conservative ones, depending on which opposition party was currently in second place locally. Panic: suddenly Blair was all over the media warning that “It’s Labour versus Tory (Conservative). Anything else is a Tory vote by the black door.”

Even in my own central London constituency, which has been a safe Labour seat since shortly after King Arthur’s time, a hastily printed one-page flyer was hand-delivered to our house on Sunday in which our local Labour MP, Frank Dobson, in effect begged us to ignore Blair and vote Labour anyway. “Many people in Holborn and St Pancras and across the UK think…it’s safe to have a protest vote. Or maybe you plan to vote Labour through gritted teeth. I understand that feeling.”

Stressing that he personally had voted against the invasion of Iraq, Dobson hammered home the message that “A Tory Government is the only alternative (to voting Labour).” Only that isn’t really true, and many habitual Labour voters have figured that out. The British papers are full of cut-out guides to how a tactical vote for the Lib Dems would affect the outcome in each individual constituency, together with the crucial information that almost no amount of anti-Blair tactical voting by Labour supporters could give the Conservatives a majority.

What tactical voting could do, on around a ten percent swing from Labour to the Liberal Democrats, is to deprive Labour of its majority in parliament. Labour would still be the biggest party, and would be almost certain to form the next government, but it would have to be either a minority government with outside support from a (much bigger) Liberal Democratic contingent in parliament, or even a formal coalition with the Lib Dems.

In either case, it is very unlikely that Tony Blair — “the young war criminal,” as Alan Watkins, the doyen of British political columnists, calls him — would remain prime minister. His own party is full of people who loathe him, and only accept his leadership because he is allegedly a sure-fire election winner, but they would quickly turn and rend him if he stumbles. Besides, any arrangement for informal support or a formal coalition with the Lib Dems would probably require an early decision to dump Blair and pull British troops out of Iraq.

How likely is all this to happen? Not all that probable, really.

The Liberal Democratic leader, Charles Kennedy, has fought a lacklustre campaign, and the Conservatives have failed to stampede the electorate with a campaign that played up to fears of the immigrants and “asylum-seekers” who are allegedly inundating Britain. (“Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” as a series of Tory campaign posters coyly put it.)

The Conservatives even imported Lynton Crosby, the Australian electoral guru who recently master-minded the return of Prime Minister John Howard for a third term in Canberra on a platform of thinly disguised racism and xenophobia, to run their campaign in Britain. It hasn’t worked, however, as Britain is a much more ethnically diverse country than Australia: Conservative leader Michael Howard is himself the son of Jewish immigrants from Romania and Ukraine. Tory support has scarcely shifted through the whole campaign.

The only thing that can shift the political landscape in Britain is Labour voters casting tactical votes for Liberal Democratic candidates, and while there will be enough of them to deliver a stinging rebuke to Blair for the war, they will probably not be numerous enough to deprive Labour of its majority.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“The Liberal…whole campaign”)