Now that the British general election is over, the postmortems begin. Tony Blair and the Labour Party succeeded in winning a third consecutive election, with a substantial parliamentary majority. But the electoral system disguises the fact that this government was elected with the lowest proportion of the popular vote of any British government ever. And because momentum means everything in politics, the Labour government has found itself going the wrong way.
The Economy Is Fine -- It's the Prime Minister, Stupid
Gallup's latest poll of Britons* in April shows continued substantial approval of the way Blair handles the economy. Yet when it comes to foreign affairs, the exact opposite is the case -- more disapprove than approve of Blair's performance.
Given these findings it's not surprising the opposition parties did not base their campaigns on economic issues. The Conservative Party concentrated on a populist platform of reducing immigration and criticizing government waste. The Liberal Democrats, nationalists, and left-wing parties focused on the Iraq war.
But more importantly, Blair's opposition succeeded in transforming the campaign from a pure attack on foreign affairs into an attack on the character of the prime minister. Past Gallup polling has shown the success of the Labour government depends on Blair's popularity. The opposition's ability to transform Blair from an asset into a liability could explain the substantial loss of votes for the Labour government in last week's general election.
Blair's approval ratings improved from 34% approve, 60% disapprove in April 2004, to 41% approve, 51% disapprove in April 2005. But the latter figures still represent net disapproval.
Young Britons remain more approving of Blair than do older Britons. Half of 18- to 29-year-olds approve and 42% disapprove of the prime minister's overall job performance. All the other age groups show net disapproval. Young families are commonly viewed as the bedrock group that swung behind Labour and enabled Blair to come to power in the 1990s. This bedrock may be in doubt now, however, with a shallow net positive rating for Blair in the 18- to 29-year-old group, and a net negative rating in the 30- to 49-year-old group.
During the election, Blair's reaction to criticisms of his character, which were derived from questions about the war in Iraq, varied. Initially he gave his commitment to the war as an example of leadership to be approved of. Indeed, evidence from last year seemed to show that the British public could accept the integrity and bravery of this stance, even if some did not agree with it.
But Blair's defense of this "leadership" was not consistently carried through. Instead Blair and the Labour Party chose to concentrate their campaigns during the election on how well they had managed the economy and how they would improve public services. This was in line with the issue approval that Gallup Polls had documented, and was enough to give the government a victory -- but it was not enough to give a landslide as in previous elections.
Succession to Blair: Golden Legacy or Poisoned Chalice?
Before this election, Blair announced that this would be the last term he would seek as prime minister. With the leader of the main opposition Conservative Party also indicating he wishes to stand down at the next general election, there will be a completely new pair of contenders for the job, for the first time since 1979. The Conservative Party leader will no longer feel like David fighting Goliath in the struggle to become prime minister.
It's uncertain what kind of legacy Blair will leave to the next leader of the Labour Party. Labour politicians had hoped the foreign policy attacks dominating Blair's second term would be confined to a narrow political class and would eventually be forgotten. But this negativity has endured, and even widened into a more widespread and enduring disapproval.
If this discontent applies only to the prime minister personally, then Blair's decision to step down (perhaps sooner rather than later) could mean he'll leave little political baggage behind. But if this disapproval extends to the Labour government in general, or debilitates the government to a large extent, the new Labour leader could find his association with Blair to be a poisoned chalice.
*Results in Great Britain are based on telephone interviews with 1,012 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted April 5-18, 2005. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points. The survey was conducted by Gallup UK.