Global Trends by Martin Khor
Monday 9 May 2005
Blurb: Labour won, but only just, in the UK elections last week. Tony Blair’s unpopularity was the major post-election theme. The message was clear: the UK should not have gone to war in Iraq. Will this put a brake on those leaders who believe in unilateral military action?
Tony Blair’s Labour Party just about won the elections in the United Kingdom last week. That may at first glance be a debatable thing to say.
After all it secured a 66-seat majority. But consider the facts. The party won only 36% of the popular votes (down from 42% in 2001), compared to 33% by the Conservative Party (same as in 2001) and 23% by the Liberal Party (up by 4%).
Thus, only a minority of the voters endorsed the winning party. Many former Labour voters had left in droves to vote this time for the Tories or Liberals.
In Britain’s first-past-the-post system, the winner takes all in each seat, and thus Labour was able to get its comfortable majority. Some point to the unfairness: Labour led the Tories by just 3% of votes, but ended up with almost twice the number of seats.
If there had been a proportional representative system, Labour would have won just over a third of the seats and would have to form a coalition to take power..
Secondly, if only a few percent of those who voted Labour had swung another way, or stayed at home and not voted, the Conservatives would have won.
This is a far cry from the previous election, when Labour swept into is second term with a thumping majority of 166 seats.
Thus there was no joy and celebration, especially in the Blair camp of the Labour party. The writing was clear on the wall. The Prime Minister’s actions relating to the war in Iraq had angered a large part of the British people, including many who had earlier had faith in him, and many in his own party.
From being the most popular leader that Labour has produced for a long while, Blair became an electoral liability. Labour candidates did not want to put his photograph next to theirs on posters and cards.
In the last week of the campaign, the leaked letter of the Attorney General, giving an opinion that a war on Iraq could well be illegal if not accompanied by a new United Nations resolution, and the fact that Blair had kept this advice hidden not only from the public but also his own Cabinet colleagues and from the defence chiefs, placed the war at the front of election issues, and raised the level of mistrust and disgust against him.
There are reports of people on the streets and on TV shows shouting at Blair for his war conduct as he campaigned. His famous bright smile no longer seemed as attractive but appeared like a toothpaste advertisement, except that this was a politician selling himself and the righteousness of his fast-eroding cause.
Even the way he has treated his deputy, Gordon Brown, became a source of indignation. Brown is now much more popular than Blair. There was a rumour Brown would even be demoted after the election, which caused alarm.
Then Blair was forced to conclude he could not do without Brown’s support, and the two men decided to team up for the campaign. If they had not done so in such a visible manner, Labour would almost surely have lost.
The informal understanding, at least where the public is concerned, is that Blair will hand over the premiership to Brown after an interval, and before the next General Election.
Since Labour did so badly, and Blair is held to blame for the loss of so many seats, that interval is more likely to be short rather than long. Speculation is that Blair will have to leave before the local election next May, as otherwise the party will lose more seats then.
So, although the Iraq war did not topple Blair at the polls, it has toppled his image and popularity and will likely lead to the premature ending of his premiership.
A symbol of the people’s protest against him and the war was the sensational victory of independent, George Galloway, over Labour in one of its London strongholds. Galloway had been sacked by the party for his anti-war proclamations. In his victory speech, he said his win was for Iraq, for the hundred thousand that had died needlessly there, and that Blair should now be sacked by his party for bringing the country to war.
But despite expectations that Blair cannot survive long more at the top, the PM may still surprise. He is a survivor, and has talked his way out of a mess many times before. At his post-election speech at Downing Street, he acknowledged that the war had been divisive, and said firmly, “We must move on.”
That plea, to sweep the war under the carpet now, is however unlikely to work this time. Indeed, many who heard his “we must move on” line must have said to themselves: “Time indeed for him to move on and give the job to someone else.”
The reason of course is that the war is still on, Iraq (despite its own recent elections) is in a great and blood-filled mess where hundreds are killed or injured daily in a continuing insurrection, and the foreign occupation troops are still there.
There is the question of the many thousands (some estimate up to 100,000) of Iraqis killed and many more who were injured or had their lives disrupted. How will sweeping the war under the carpet in the UK or the rest of the world, and “moving on”, help these people?
And the great issue, of the illegality of the war in the first place, is still very much with us. As it should, because the invasion of Iraq is the prime and pioneering example of the US-led and UK-following doctrine of the right to pre-emptively strike unilaterally at enemies perceived subjectively to be an imminent threat.
Iraq is the test case of this dangerous doctrine that threatens to destabilize the post-World War Two international order. The legal advisor of the UK Foreign Office had understood this, and resigned on the eve of the war, stating that she could not remain in her post when the government’s imminent action would be illegal under international law and would go against the world order.
If Bush, supported by Blair, can bomb out and take over a country and kill many of its people as they like and get away with it, then what they did to Iraq can be followed by similar actions in any number of countries, and not only Syria, Iran or North Korea, which are the current designated “states of evil.”
Through the action of many UK citizens showing their anger at Blair at last week’s polls, a message has been sent out – at least to the politicians in the UK if not to the world – that his government’s aggression towards Iraq is not acceptable, at least not now.
For this alone the UK election results and its message are important for the world to take note of.