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Setback for Bush's junior partner

May 13, 2005 | Page 3

BRITISH PRIME Minister Tony Blair's role as George Bush's junior partner in the invasion of Iraq cost his Labour Party big in last week's national election.

Blair will serve a third successive term as prime minister--a first for the Labour Party--but the loss of more than 100 parliamentary seats is a clear rejection of Blair's "New Labour" policies that distanced the party from its history as the political representative of Britain's labor movement.

Most of the gains went to the Conservatives--the traditional party of big business, known as the Tories--and the Liberal Democrats, the country's third-largest party. Most spectacularly, however, George Galloway--a former leader of the left wing of the Labour Party, who was expelled by the Blair machine for his antiwar views--won back a seat in parliament as a candidate of the left-wing Respect Coalition.

The key issue was Blair's groveling support for the U.S.-run war on Iraq. During the campaign, press revelations showed the full extent to which Blair knew that the supposed justifications for the invasion--Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, and Saddam Hussein's phantom connections to al-Qaeda--were manufactured.

According to the official minutes of one meeting, held eight months before the invasion, the director of Britain's chief spy agency told Blair that the Bush administration had decided on regime change--and the "intelligence and facts are being fixed around the policy," the Sunday Times newspaper quoted him as saying. By this point, Blair had already made a secret pledge to Bush that Britain would participate in the war.

Labour's losses will probably hasten Blair's expected resignation as prime minister, in favor of his presumed heir, Gordon Brown, the government's finance minister.

Brown was more popular with Labour supporters during the campaign--seemingly because, one voter told a reporter, "he's more like old Labour." But this is a mirage. Brown was a chief architect, alongside Blair, of New Labour's pro-business agenda and belt-tightening attacks on social programs. If, as prime minister, he pulls British troops out of Iraq, it will be because widespread opposition to the war finally forces the government's hand.

Labour might have been voted out of government altogether if Britain's main opposition party, the Tories, weren't so thoroughly despised. Since his party agreed with Blair on the war, Tory leader Michael Howard ran a racist campaign to outflank Labour's crackdown on immigration.

The Liberal Democrats won a lot of votes from Labour supporters disillusioned with Blair. They didn't deserve them. The party's claimed opposition to the Iraq invasion was inconsistent--and it backs the occupation now. Plus, the Liberal Democrats' economic policies are indistinguishable from Blair's.

The most significant election result for the left was Galloway's victory over New Labour apparatchik Oona King in a working-class and predominantly immigrant area in East London--the first time in more than 50 years that a party to the left of Labour has won a seat in parliament.

Galloway is probably the best-known left-wing opponent of New Labour. Blair himself engineered Galloway's expulsion from the Labour Party in 2003. During the campaign, New Labour luminaries--including Blair's wife, Cherie--descended on the East London constituency to support King over Galloway.

The vote came down to a clear choice between Blair's war policies--and Galloway's uncompromising antiwar stand in favor of immediate withdrawal and Iraq's right to self-determination. "[O]ur victory is unambiguously a victory for the antiwar movement," Galloway wrote after the vote. "It has altered the political landscape and created new possibilities for the left and for progressive people."

Still, the revolt against New Labour is at an early stage. Other left-wing parties--such as the Scottish Socialist Party, which lost ground in this election compared to past showings--didn't have a similar success.

And Respect scored its win by concentrating resources on a small number of races--it ran in only 26 constituencies. Four Respect candidates besides Galloway succeeded in winning double-digit percentages of the vote, coming in second or third in their races. The rest placed lower.

The next challenge for the British left is to continue organizing an alternative to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's New Labour--by building at the grassroots in the antiwar movement and other struggles.

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