Blair Landslide Likely--With Strings

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As British voters mark their ballots today--and they do mark them, with a pencil--Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party appears headed for a conditional landslide.

Polls show Blair holding a commanding lead over the enfeebled Conservative Party, virtually guaranteeing him a second term. However, an expected low voter turnout would underscore public disappointment with the pace of change in his first term.

There is so little suspense about the outcome of the election that the Conservatives were reduced in recent days to warning voters against giving Labor too great a victory.

Yet the four-week campaign also provided Blair with pointed reminders that Britons are demanding better basic public services, especially from schools and the National Health Service. From the partner of a cancer patient early in the campaign to the son of a nurse this week, Blair was upbraided by voters complaining about inadequate funding, long waiting lists for operations and shortages of teachers and nurses.

In the media, as within the Labor Party, the sense is that voters will give Blair another term in which to make progress but will be much less forgiving if things do not improve more quickly.

"Labor will get in again," Chris Wigley, the manager of a bingo parlor in the northeastern town of South Shields, said during the campaign. "But this is the term they will be judged by. Up until now, they could talk about . . . what the Tories left them. Now it's their own stuff."

More pointedly, for a country that often thinks itself more advanced than its European neighbors, wrote the Independent newspaper, "we are impatient for the rail services of France, the education standards of Germany, the quality of health care in the Netherlands."

One survey published Wednesday in the Guardian newspaper showed a 4-percentage-point drop in support for the prime minister. It still gave him an 11-point lead over the Conservatives--more than enough to ensure victory--but it clearly fed Blair's concern about the depth of his supporters' commitment.

In recent days, he implored supporters to go to the polls.

"Please, come out and let your voice be heard. Use your vote. People fought and died to get the vote in this country," Blair said. "That vote is the voice of the people speaking. So speak out, I say, loud and clear. . . . Reject a return to the Conservatives, reject a return to boom and bust and cuts in services, and let us move forward."

Tory party leader William Hague warned voters one last time that Labor would bring them higher taxes, take them further into an integrated Europe and trade the pound for the common European currency.

"By Friday, we can either have a government dedicated to ditching the pound and getting rid of the rights and powers of Britain, or a Conservative government dedicated to saving the pound and maintaining the rights and powers of this country," Hague said.

The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, are promising higher taxes and more spending on public services. The party, led by Charles Kennedy, has portrayed itself as a more effective opposition than the Conservatives.

After running the country for 18 years, the Tories were crushed in 1997, when Blair's so-called new Labor Party won a massive majority in the House of Commons. Pollsters uniformly agree there is little chance of a Conservative comeback this year, and the Tories now are hoping for minor gains at best. Some polls suggest that Blair might increase his majority if he can turn out his supporters.

There are 44.5 million registered voters in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The turnout in 1997 was 71%, but some projections suggest it could fall below 60% this time, which would be the worst showing since before World War II.

Voters select their members of Parliament by district, and the party with a majority forms the government. The second-place party becomes the official opposition.

In Northern Ireland, the election for 18 seats in the House of Commons is being fought by local Roman Catholic and Protestant parties and is seen as a de facto referendum on the 1998 Good Friday peace accord.

Ulster Unionist Party chief David Trimble is fighting to hold on to his party's nine seats in the British Parliament against a stiff challenge by the anti-agreement Democratic Unionist Party. Big losses could lead to Trimble's downfall as party chief and possibly spell the end of Protestant support for the peace process.

Scotland and Wales also have local nationalist parties running against Labor and Tory candidates for Parliament.

But the big fight is for 10 Downing St., the prime minister's residence.

With Al Gore vanquished and Bill Clinton in a sort of self-imposed exile, Blair has become the informal leader of the international network of center-left parties searching for a centrist "third way" between traditional conservatism and liberalism. Many of the themes in Blair's campaign echo the arguments Clinton and--to a lesser extent--Gore used in the past three U.S. presidential elections, and his campaign has attracted such prominent American political operatives as Stanley B. Greenberg and media consultant Robert Shrum, who also played a central role for Gore.

After reducing government spending early in his first term, Blair has committed himself to big increases on education, health care and transportation; at the risk of antagonizing his core supporters in Britain's unions, he has also promised to shake up the public bureaucracies through greater reliance on the private sector.

On the campaign trail, Blair has been forced to acknowledge that improvements in those basic services haven't come as quickly as many voters hoped when they gave the Tories the boot.

"If you give a balanced picture of public services, whether schools or hospitals, the balanced picture is there is still a great deal to do, but where the investment has gone it's made a difference," Blair said this week.

Yet apart from the tangible promises of more money, Blair has been vague about how he will squeeze better results from schools and the health-care system. To many observers, that suggests that while he understands the political necessity of improving services, he's not entirely sure how to do it.

Those around Blair have few doubts that defining an effective strategy for reforming public services may prove a more daunting--and ultimately more important--challenge than vanquishing the Conservatives today.

"By the next election," acknowledged Shrum, the American consultant, "spending will need to be turned into delivery."

On Wednesday, Blair was still trying to focus attention on this election.

"Political history is littered with examples of so-called sure things which didn't turn out to be sure things," he told GMTV. "So what I'm saying to people is: Never mind about the polls and the pundits. Come out and vote, because it's important."

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