The Invincible Tony Blair?

Wednesday, January 30, 2002
Illustration by Taylor Jones for the Hoover Digest.

British prime minister Tony Blair has become a major figure in international affairs in the months since the World Trade Center attack. His quick, resolute, unswerving support of President Bush and American policy, contributing Britain’s full resources to the effort, endeared Blair to Americans to a degree not seen for a foreign leader since the days of Margaret Thatcher. At home in Britain, Blair also enjoyed, at the beginning of the war on terrorism, nearly unprecedented support, with more than 70 percent of opinion poll respondents giving him high marks for his leadership and his policy.

Much as Mrs. Thatcher became an icon at the time of the Falklands war between Britain and Argentina nearly 20 years ago, Blair enjoyed a significant boost in his standing and reputation, as did his Labour Government, whose lead in public opinion polls over the Conservative Party rose to a two-to-one advantage.

However, as the late former prime minister Harold Wilson famously pointed out, "a week is a long time in politics." Political fortunes tend to ebb and flow. The move from popularity to disfavor can be swift and brutal. Just ask the first President Bush or even Lady Thatcher. She was literally pushed from power in 1990, years after the Falklands war, by her own senior colleagues because they thought she had become an electoral liability.

"Britain’s Conservative Party finds itself in a political wilderness without a clear sense of how to become electorally competitive again."

At this time, when Tony Blair is riding high at home and abroad, it is interesting to look more closely at contemporary British politics and to speculate about how he and his government will fare on a broader scale during their second term. If there is to be trouble and challenge, where will it likely come from?

The Conservative Implosion

The starting point for examining these questions is that both Thatcher and Blair enjoyed governing without facing traditional political party opposition. The political situation at the moment in Britain is eerily similar to the early and middle Thatcher years—though reversed. Just as Labour became nearly impotent while Mrs. Thatcher was in office, the Conservatives now find themselves weak, divided, and discredited—and not viewed by the electorate as a serious alternative to the Labour Government. This was strikingly illustrated last June when Labour won a second term in office by a whopping 167-seat majority. Taken together, the elections of 1997 and 2001 were the worst result in the very long history of the Conservative Party. The Conservatives, once styled by political observers as "the natural party of government" in Britain because they won most elections during the twentieth century, find themselves now in a political wilderness without a clear sense of how to become electorally competitive again.

Given the natural course of British politics, it is almost certain that at some point the political pendulum will swing again and that the Conservatives will be well positioned to defeat an unpopular Labour Government and return to office. But as Labour unhappily found out when it was upset in the 1992 election, even victory against an unpopular government must be earned. The British electorate in 1992 simply did not trust Labour, finding the party too burdened with socialist ideology, union troubles and intraparty divisions, even though the British economy was mired in recession. Now the Conservative Party carries a similar burden and needs to find some way to rebuild trust in its ability to govern.

Thus, Blair and his government do not need to worry very much about being seriously challenged by traditional opposition political parties (this includes the third-party Liberal Democrats whose support is considerably less than the Conservatives have). Instead, if they are to face significant trouble in their second term it will most likely emerge from another source—the Labour Party itself.

"Repackaging" Labour

Politics within the Labour Party has historically been quite tumultuous, expressing the party’s ideological divisions and diverse membership, including strong pressures from its many interest groups. At times the infighting has been very destructive. In its most recent manifestations, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, conflict, especially with the unions, weakened and then brought down the Callaghan Labour government in 1979 and helped render the party unelectable during Mrs. Thatcher’s years.

One of Tony Blair’s most profound successes has been his taming of the Labour Party. His strategy was quite straightforward: He convinced the many elements of the party that, in order to have any chance at returning to power, even surviving as a party after four straight election defeats, it would need to restructure and moderate its processes and redesign its policies to be nonideological, pragmatic, and attractive. He argued successfully that the Conservatives had been too long in power, had run out of ideas and out of leaders, and were ripe for defeat if Labour could be attractively "rebranded." Indeed Blair and his colleagues ultimately succeeded so well in their remodeling and marketing project that many traditional Conservative voters, including elements of the business community, swung over to Labour, giving it the monster election victory of 1997.

Once in office, Blair and his senior colleagues remained steadfast to the approach and ideas that won the election. In their first term, from 1997 to 2001, they stuck like glue to their basic purpose of doing everything possible to maintain the prosperous economy they had inherited from the Conservatives. They were also clear about their long-term goals: To win a full second consecutive term in office for the first time in the history of the Labour Party. Dubbed "the project," they doggedly mimicked Conservative policies including especially a very untypical Labour restraint over the size and spending of the central government. Where they diverged from their predecessor Conservative government was in their aggressive devolution of power to Wales and Scotland, both of which received a measure of limited self-government including a formal executive and legislative branch of government responsible ultimately to the central British government in London.

"New" Labour versus Old: Blair’s Union Troubles

By pressing "the project" Blair angered traditional Labour supporters. The unions, in particular, felt that they had waited and worked hard for a Labour government and now deserved to have their policy needs attended to. But it became clear very early in Labour’s first term that Blair and his chancellor, Gordon Brown, were confident they could weather any unhappiness coming from within the Labour Party, figuring that these groups had nowhere else to go politically and would remain grudgingly loyal; at the same time their centrist policies would help them to maintain the support of a big percentage of the Conservative voters who had switched to Labour in 1997. As it turned out, Blair and Brown’s strategy worked well and was rewarded with an overwhelming reelection victory in 2001—despite growing discontent within the party.

Among the Labour Party’s power centers, the party’s left-wing faction as well as the union movement offer the most important potential challenges to Blair. Of the two, the unions are clearly the most important.

Labour’s left is more vocal than the unions but tends to operate within a largely symbolic context, unable to do more than occasionally embarrass the government, as when it voted in the House of Commons to condemn the bombing in Afghanistan. Although there was a great deal of media attention on the potential rebellion, only about a dozen Labour members of Parliament ended up actually voting against their government.

At bottom the problem for the Labour left is that it has been enfeebled for about a decade since the collapse of socialism and communism, leaving it without an attractive ideology to offer. Its numbers have shrunk down to about 10 percent of Labour’s membership in the House of Commons, and the discipline imposed by party whips in the House of Commons voting often reduces that number even further. Blair’s remodeling of Labour’s internal party governance structure has taken away a number of discussion and decision points that the left once used quite effectively.

"During the last election union leaders complained that they could think of no reason to vote for the reelection of the Labour government except that it was not the Tories."

That leaves the union movement as the most politically important source of current discontent. Historically, the British union movement has been at the very center of party life. It was the unions that created the Labour Party a hundred years ago to serve as their political arm, with the purpose of projecting union power into Britain’s central government decision making. But from the beginning the relationship between the unions and Labour was plagued by disagreements about policy goals and purposes. A nearly continuous argument between the two sides has been about how much Labour needs to broadly bid for electoral support at the expense of union interests. Over time, and especially during the Blair era, the Labour Party has recognized that its electoral fortunes are not dependent so much on union approval as on the approval of the wider electorate.

Indeed, Blair and Labour remember only too well how effectively Mrs. Thatcher charged the Labour government during the seventies with being a puppet of the union movement and thereby ruining the British economy. Mindful of that liability the Blair government has been careful to avoid being seen as taking orders from the unions or producing policies that even hinted at acquiescing to union demands. Blair has succeeded so well in this effort that union leaders during the June election often complained that they could think of no reason to vote for the reelection of the Labour government except that it was not the Tories.

The union members’ view of Blair’s second term is that the time has come for the Labour government to pay much greater attention to their needs as well as traditional Labour values. They point out that although they were unhappy with Blair’s first term "imitation" Conservative government, they continued to provide political and financial support for the Labour Party so that it could win a second term. But issues now need to be addressed in a supportive manner, including improvements in the National Health Service, as well as the education and transportation systems. They strongly dislike Blair’s oft-repeated plans to bring in the private sector to inject rapid improvements. That is simply traitorous talk as far as the unions are concerned, and the majority of unions in the central trade union organization, the Trades Union Congress, are public sector unions opposed to any whiff of private involvement. Given that Blair has staked Labour’s political future on improving public services in his own way, it is clear that the makings of a serious union-government confrontation are in place.

How likely are such disagreements to escalate into wholesale political conflict, with the destructive impact on the Labour Party that occurred a quarter century ago when union strikes during the winter of 1978 brought down the government led by Prime Minister Callaghan?

The answer grows out of the enormous change in British politics during the past couple of decades. Political leadership in Britain is dramatically more powerful vis-à-vis interest groups and particularly the union movement than it was when Mrs. Thatcher came to power in 1979. Although the unions retain considerable power to undermine the Blair government’s strength, they do not have either the economic or the political power they once enjoyed. Mrs. Thatcher’s Conservative government did a big favor for Labour governments as well as for itself when it legislated restraints on trade union power and so changed the political dynamic in Britain that unions no longer can command a place at the center of economic or political decision making. Gone are the days of the previous Labour government’s day-by-day consultation in the Cabinet Room at Number 10 Downing Street about economic policy with the unions. Gone too is about half the membership of the union movement. In the heyday of union power, the unions’ threat of strikes was an ever present weapon that the political leadership of both major parties feared could seriously paralyze national economic life as it did in a 1974 miners’ strike, which caused massive electricity cutbacks and forced the government to declare three-day workweeks.

This said, a serious break between the unions and the Labour Party would still have significant political consequences. The unions still provide most of the Labour Party’s financing for both elections and organizational expenses. In addition, they provide a very high percentage of the "foot soldiers" who work in election districts during election campaigns. There has been a great deal of talk within the union movement recently that its support for Labour should be made much less automatic. Some have even proposed that the unions withdraw their support and begin providing money and effort for whatever party is willing to champion their interests. Some union leaders have even gone so far as to advocate switching their support to the third party, the Liberal Democrats, arguing that they are more in tune with the union public policy agenda. This is unlikely but does give an indication of how disillusioned the unions have become.

"For the moment, things look good for Blair at home. The Conservatives are weak. Discontent within Blair’s own Labour Party, while palpable, is not immediately menacing. Blair’s true test will come, however, if the British economy begins to sour."

Thus, as the Labour government moves through its second term with an obvious eye on a further term in office, it is likely to give in more often to the unions than during its first term but without, it hopes, losing the more Conservative, business-oriented support that is valuable in providing votes and keeping the Conservatives in trouble. To pull this off, Blair will need some good luck with Britain’s economy. If the economy does not hold up (as now may be happening), union leverage on the party will increase. Union pressure on the government to break its budget restraint in favor of saving jobs and providing improved social welfare benefits will increase dramatically, making that balancing act nearly impossible to continue. If that is the case, the political future will be shaped whether the Conservative Party recovers from its disaster sufficiently to allow it to pick up growing discontent.

Blair the Invincible?

So, in sum, Tony Blair is operating currently with considerable political strength. The Conservatives are weak and the discontent within his Labour Party, while palpable, is not immediately menacing. Moreover, although the unions are unhappy and still potent, their power is less than his Labour predecessors endured 20 and 30 years ago. But as even Mrs. Thatcher experienced, the picture can change and change quickly. Much as she found out, political support can be a mile wide and an inch thick. For example, union-government conflict could spill over, causing growing discontent among Mr. Blair’s colleagues within the Labour Party, both in his Cabinet and in the House of Commons. Just as for Mrs. Thatcher, that spillover could spell more trouble than the tangible power the unions could bring to bear. Mr. Blair, like all leaders, needs to maintain the support of his colleagues as well as that of the party at large.

A week in politics is indeed a long time. Stay tuned!