Why British Labor Must Win

April 26, 1997|By Daniel Berger

PENDULUMS SWING, in democratic politics, for a number of reasons. The most frequent is poor economic performance.

This is not, however, why the Labor Party will almost certainly come to power in the general election in Britain Thursday.

Britain's economic performance under John Major's Conservative government is better than anyone anticipated. Unemployment just went down again.

Another frequent reason is that the party in power has lost touch with voters' wants and fears. That's not it, either. Tony Blair's Labor Party has renamed itself New Labor (in mimicry of Bill Clinton's New Democrats) to sever its image from its legacy and embrace what the rival Conservatives created in the past 18 years.

The Labor opposition, in other words, believes that the Conservative government is in better touch with what the people want than the Labor opposition has been.

Sometimes the pendulum swings because people are sick of scandal. That's getting a little closer. A surprising number of family-value Tory politicians have been publicized in embarrassments of a private nature. And there is the business about taking money to do parliamentary favors for special interests. The legality is fuzzy and the sums are peanuts by American standards.

The real reason that Labor must win is that the Conservatives have been in too long and the people want a change. Not all the people, but the decisive sliver that turns a plurality into dominance under the British system.

This is change for its own sake: Give the other lot a chance. Get a fresh face. Let the character of the rulers improve with a bracing period for reflection in the wilderness. This sentiment, which is not purely British, helps make democracy work.

It happened here

As a result, voters can endorse solutions they did not really notice in the fine print. A good example was Newt Gingrich's Contract with America in the Republican congressional sweep of 1994. Many voters who gave the Republicans a mandate did not, when they finally saw it, like what those Republicans were pledged to do.

The British equivalent of this may be home rule for Scotland. It is a halfway measure that Labor adopted years back to defuse the secessionism of the Scottish Nationalists, who were on the rise at the time.

There would be a parliament for Scotland -- on the model of the discredited former parliament of Northern Ireland at Stormont -- but not a sovereign state.

The system now is that a Scottish Office in Edinburgh, separate from the English and Welsh civil service, does the bidding of the elected British government in Westminster. To create something like an American state legislature to give the Scottish Office political direction would be an expense and a new level of politics but not a revolution.

It is not clear the Scots, who will vote overwhelmingly Labor, want this. Some think it too much and others too little. The Scottish Nationalists denounce it as skim milk and the Tories as the instrument with which the United Kingdom will be dismembered.

But Labor has given itself an out, a pledge to hold a referendum in Scotland before anything is done. As a result, the party's real commitment to its own position is subject to skepticism.

There are other issues like this. The split among the Conservatives over British participation in European monetary union will help bring their downfall. Labor in power will have the same split.

That issue will help Mr. Blair oust Mr. Major, although Mr. Blair's position on it is what Mr. Major's was until a week ago.

The real point is to throw the ins out and put the outs in. This would have happened years ago if Labor hadn't been so out-of-sync with the real working classes.

Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 4/26/97

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