High-Riding Blair Battles to the Finish

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The economy is strong, the Conservative opposition has pilloried itself, and even the sun, seldom seen in Britain, is smiling on his campaign. Polls give Prime Minister Tony Blair an overwhelming lead going into Thursday's election, suggesting that his Labor Party will increase its majority in Parliament and, barring a political train wreck, he will be elected to a second term.

And yet the British prime minister is campaigning like a man fighting for survival. In a round-the-clock whirl of interviews, speeches, photo sessions and party rallies, Blair is peddling his new Labor vision with newly unleashed passion.

The Tories do not believe in public investment and a government that looks after the many rather than the few, Blair said repeatedly as he crisscrossed the country, from Brighton in the south Thursday to northern England on Friday, returning to London on Saturday. Britain wants a government that will "run the economy well and work with business but believes in compassion and social justice," he told a rally in the southern town of Croydon.

Blair will not be drawn into discussions about his postelection plans because he will not be seen to take victory for granted.

"We need a mandate for a different set of values and attitudes than those under the Conservative government," Blair told supporters. "We need people's support. We need their strength behind us."

Blair Fears Voters Will Stay at Home

Aware that Labor has never won two consecutive full terms in power, Blair is campaigning against apathy in his own ranks as much as against the opposition Tory and Liberal Democratic parties. He fears that the polls, which put his lead at as much as 20 percentage points, will inspire complacency among his core supporters, that voters will stay at home in record numbers. And there is cause for concern.

A landslide victory in 1997 ended 18 years of Tory government and offered a dose of euphoria to power-starved Laborites. Many of them expected an immediate relief from a generation of economic hardships and government cuts.

But Blair's brand of centrist politics--the "third way" between West European socialism and Tory conservatism--has been more like a sensible diet than a miracle cure: a slow slog with decent results, nothing dramatic. And there is room for improvement.

"They are fair and caring. Or they appear to be at least, until they are shown to be otherwise," said Labor voter Neil Kempshall, 68, in Brighton.

That is the sort of less-than-ringing endorsement that Blair is seeking to raise by a few decibels.

By U.S. standards, Blair would be seen as being to the left of Bill Clinton. But he is more conservative than old Labor or other European social democratic parties on issues such as taxes, government spending and privatization.

He tells his supporters over and over that the choice they face is not between new Labor and a more leftist old Labor, but between his administration and right-wing Tories. To make the point on just how conservative the alternative is, his party put out a billboard of the bald Tory leader, William Hague, in former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's trademark hairdo.

Tit for Tat Over Thatcher 'Do

That specter keeps old Laborites in line, if not in ecstasy. But the Economist weekly magazine responded with a cover photograph Friday of Blair with Thatcher's hairdo under the headline "Vote Conservative." The publication backed the prime minister as "the only credible conservative currently available."

The Liberal Democrats, led by Charles Kennedy and who favor higher taxes and more government spending, have gained support but have virtually no chance of winning the election.

Blair's worry is that while his supporters on the left feel he is too conservative, many middle England swing voters still fear he is a closet leftist. He has been restrained in taxing and spending during a first term, but they suspect that he will swing left in a second. There are Euro-skeptics among them who worry that he will take Britain too quickly into the common European currency and greater integration with the Continent.

Hague has tried to appeal to those voters by making lower taxes, Europe and the euro the centerpiece of his campaign. But polls show that the issues foremost on voters' minds are improving the quality of schools, the National Health Service and other public services.

So what is the theme of Blair's final week of campaigning? "Schools and Hospitals First."

Blair was raised in private schools and educated at Oxford. He moved into 10 Downing St. at age 43, having served only in Parliament and as an opposition leader, never as a member of government. He sought, in his trademark starched white shirts and cuff links, to exude managerial competence and statesmanship.

After the Tories had done the dirty work, Blair was able to turn around the economy with little trouble during a global boom. The economy grew, unemployment and inflation went down. The government increased spending by dribs and drabs while wooing business leaders and foreign investment with taxes that are lower than in much of the rest of Europe.

His government was tough on law and order issues, and Blair established himself on the world stage during the U.S.- and British-led air campaign against Yugoslavia in 1999.

At home, he joined forces with Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern to push through the 1998 Good Friday peace accord in Northern Ireland and has fought to keep the pact alive against its extremist opponents. He devolved power to national parliaments in Scotland and Wales. He also abolished the inherited peerages in the House of Lords, the upper house of Britain's Parliament, which were seen by many to be embarrassing relics of a feudal society.

Britain has become a more middle class country since the last time Labor ruled--part of the reason Blair has been able to move to the political center so successfully. He also made modest improvements for the elderly and working poor with tax breaks and government social programs. He instituted a minimum wage and began to address problems of severely overcrowded schools and an understaffed health system.

Criticism From the Right and Left

His critics on the right accuse him of raising "stealth" taxes on items such as cigarettes and gasoline when he should have been cutting the levies and reducing the size of government. They charge that he has made Britain a soft touch for immigrants seeking asylum.

Critics on the left say he has not lived up to his promises to reduce class sizes in schools, shorten waiting lists in hospitals and improve the country's dreadful rail service. They are angry that he wants to privatize air traffic controllers, as Ronald Reagan advocated in the United States, and that he introduced university fees. They fear that his goal of bringing more private investment into the National Health Service will eventually kill the system.

But Jonathan Freedland, a political columnist for the Guardian newspaper, argues that Blair has not abandoned the poor or Labor's progressive goals and will win on a platform that still puts public investment ahead of tax cuts.

"That, and shaking off the left's reputation for economic incompetence, represent historic advances," Freedland wrote.

Blair broke with the tradition of announcing the election in front of 10 Downing St., instead launching his campaign at a secondary school for girls. The move surprised a nation that does not realize how far it has gone down the road of American-style image politics.

Many of the campaign stops are made for television, with pretty pictures of Blair kissing babies but with little content. He speaks to party activists, rarely undecided voters, and won't even tell the media traveling with him where they are going each day--an effort to limit demonstrators and bad press.

On the other hand, he or his Cabinet ministers face reporters every morning of the campaign.

Blair has been lucky in his friends--Clinton helped deliver the Northern Ireland peace agreement--and in his wife, a respected attorney who delivered their fourth child at age 45. He also has been lucky in his enemies. Hague was unable to capitalize on a winter of high fuel prices and floods, nor on a spring outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease among livestock, which the government handled poorly.

Discontent with terrible public services is Blair's worst enemy.

He argues that Labor's prudent management of the economy, with the lowest unemployment in 20 years, has produced the funds that were needed for public services suffering after decades of Tory under-investment. If the country stays the course that Labor has set, he says, there will be more money to pump into those services.

Paul Webb, a political science professor at the University of Sussex, compares government to an ocean liner: "When it starts to turn, it takes ages to change direction."

British voters appear willing to give Blair four more years to make the turn.

"My instinct is to vote Labor," said David Molony, 45, who brought his teenage sons to see Blair in Croydon. "But they've got to try harder next time."

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