Trapped on the Right

LONDON: Judged by its outcome, Britain’s general election lacked suspense and surprise. Throughout its four years in power, Tony Blair’s New Labour government enjoyed a large and steady lead in opinion polls. When Blair called for new elections, victory was taken for granted. Yet the election was revealing, not only of problems within British politics, but also of similar stresses in political systems across the West.

From the Labour Party’s point of view, this second election was a test of its credibility as a normal party of government. For nearly 80 years Labour was the main political alternative to the Conservative Party or Tories, and in several general elections it defeated them. Nevertheless, the Conservatives seemed the more normal party of government. Labour’s position as an outsider was underlined by the fact that it was never elected to two consecutive full terms of government.

Until now. Labour succeeded because Tony Blair jettisoned Labour’s entrenched left-wing dogmas. Traditional Socialist nostrums – nationalization, price controls, government direction – had failed in the past, could not be expected to work in the future, and thus held no credibility with voters. So Blair decided that New Labour would not just accept, but embrace the principle of market forces.

By stealing the economic policy clothes of the Tories, Blair exposed the ambivalent posture of the Conservative Party in Britain. This ambivalence has been, until now, common to almost all mainstream center-right parties in Europe. Publicly, each claims legitimacy by offering to the wider society dynamic programs of modernization, liberalization and competent economic management; privately they promise their friends that they will promote sectoral interests and preserve social privileges.