Three in a row for Blair
Winning three elections on the trot has never been easy. New Zealand's Liberal government in 1896 stumbled and nearly fell. The opposition initially claimed victory then downgraded it to a "moral victory". Dick Seddon told them they could have their moral victory any day - so long as the results stayed the same! W.F. Massey found his third in 1922 very hard, describing the next two years as "hell all the time". The First Labour Government's third election in 1943 was Peter Fraser's first as leader, but in the depths of war, a tough one to predict. Labour held on. Sid Holland's high tide ran out a long way at his third election in 1954, and both Keith Holyoake and Robert Muldoon survived their thirds uncomfortably. In Muldoon's case it took a court case to give him an overall majority in 1981 by a 36-vote margin in Taupo.
That's why Tony Blair's performance last week was amazing. Three in a row hasn't ever occurred for British Labour. Earlier greats like Gladstone and Disraeli didn't achieve it, and in modern times only Mrs Thatcher won three, although the Conservatives under different leaders managed it. Governments gather baggage over time; familiarity can rob a leader of trust. Yet, even despite the huge effort by single-issue radicals, crusading journalists, academics and the Tory opposition, enough voters held firm to re-elect Blair, albeit with only 36.4% of the vote. Those who watched Blair's victory speech in Sedgefield witnessed one of the best political performers of his generation. But it's more than that. Like Bob Hawke in Australia, British voters knew where Labour stood on essentials. Sure, the Brits, like us, have had a lucky run with their economy. Until recently when he started borrowing, Chancellor Gordon Brown had been prudent with finance. Much of the cash went into public services. A 50% increase in health expenditure since coming to office in 1997 has produced extra doctors, nurses and hospitals, and shorter waiting times, despite much waste along the way.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Blair's most vocal critics preferred to concentrate their attacks on his alliance with George Bush in Iraq. There has always been a sizeable element within Labour parties everywhere that prefers ideological purity to the contamination of office. Several university towns swung away from Blair last Thursday, their smug middle-class voters luxuriating in job security, and intent on punishing Labour. The more shrill they became, the more they consolidated Blair's hard-core vote. In politics vocal critics sometimes become unwitting helpers. As they scream for Blair's departure there may well be a backlash.
The big test starts now. For several years British Labour's spending has risen at twice the rate of economic growth. Money is getting tighter. A likely slow down will produce louder calls for tax cuts to stimulate recovery. High taxes and waste are starting to resonate with voters. With less money, British Labour needs to make better use of what it has, and be bolder. It has been more willing to tap into the private sectors in health and education than New Zealand Labour, and needs to do more if Labour is to deliver real social service improvements. How long before New Zealand Labour that has been equally wasteful in many social areas, excepting care of the elderly, finds it has to do the same thing?
What I found most encouraging about Blair's victory was that he won despite Iraq. The worst politicians in my mind are those who refuse to do what they know to be right because there'll be a knee-jerk reaction that could frighten the horses. David Lange's government did the right thing and was rewarded in 1987. Blair did over Iraq, despite some initial nervousness. Governments that stand for nothing except a few oddball agendas, which swivel in the wind, then cut and run every time the heat comes on, can survive for a time. If their opposition is weak or irresolute, they outlive their usefulness, yet still win re-election. However, they won't have much of a place in the history books. Blair will. He's a modern phenomenon with respect that crosses national as well as political boundaries. The real test will be British Labour's fourth election. The auguries for Gordon Brown, to whom Blair has promised to surrender the leadership during this term, aren't as good. Brown has no visible element of magic. These days real political skill is rare.