Blair Sails to Second Election Landslide

TIMES STAFF WRITER

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party stormed to a landslide election victory Thursday but with the lowest voter turnout since World War I.

A healthy economy and public patience for change apparently swept the 48-year-old Blair back into power. His return is a first for the 100-year-old party, which had never before managed to retake 10 Downing St. after a full term in office.

The Labor victory condemned the Conservative Party, also known as the Tories, to its longest stretch in opposition since the 1920s.

With about two-thirds of the vote counted, the BBC projected that Labor had won about 45% of the vote, the Conservatives had about 29% and the Liberal Democrats about 17%--nearly the same results as in 1997, when Labor brought the Conservatives' 18-year rule to a crushing end.

But a voter turnout estimated at less than 60% of Britain's 45 million voters is the lowest since 1918 and a development that many political analysts fear means Britain is headed toward American levels of voter apathy.

Those who did vote guaranteed Labor another huge majority in the 659-member House of Commons and, with it, the right to lead the country for a second term. Blair will go to Buckingham Palace this morning, where Queen Elizabeth II will invite him to form a government.

Blair is likely to make some changes to his Cabinet but no major policy shifts in his second term. His new Labor government is expected to be politically moderate, fiscally conservative and pro-American, as it was in his first term.

Adoption of Euro Currency Expected

With its policies already in place, the government also is not expected to make the sort of stunning, Monday-morning announcement that Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown made after the 1997 election, when he declared the Bank of England independent.

The fall of the pound sterling to its lowest value in 15 years indicated that financial markets foresee Blair taking Britain into the common European currency in a second term.

The prime minister has said he will only urge Britain to adopt the euro once he is convinced that the economic conditions guaranteeing stability have been met, and he has promised to put the issue to a national vote. Labor officials say a referendum should be held within two years.

The BBC and Independent Television News exit polls predicted that the breakdown of the vote by Parliament district would mean the loss of a handful of seats for Labor, with gains for the Liberal Democrats and further losses for the Tories. This amounted to a hearty endorsement for Labor, which could have expected more erosion in its support after four years in power.

Looking pleased and grave at once, Blair hailed a "historic moment for the Labor Party" and promised to govern with "absolute humility" during the second term.

"This country is a better country today than in 1997, and five years from now it will be a better country than today," Blair promised in his acceptance speech in his Sedgefield parliamentary district.

Campaign Focused on Economy, Services

He said the country supported Labor because the center-left party "had the courage to change ourselves . . . to say to the people of this country, you can have a political party that will run the economy well, work with business, but still pursue the goals of social justice and opportunity for all."

"We can have a politics in which head and heart are married together, in which ambition and compassion lie easily with one another," he said.

Labor's four-week campaign focused on the party's ability to manage the economy, which is enjoying the lowest unemployment and inflation in a generation, and promises of increased spending on public services such as schools and the National Health Service.

Tory leader William Hague, by contrast, promised tax cuts and an anti-Europe policy to keep the pound as Britain's currency. It was a campaign aimed at the party's conservative base rather than one that reached out to middle-of-the-road voters.

In the face of the Conservatives' disastrous showing, attention turned to whether the 40-year-old Hague will remain party leader.

"The problem is that we've lost heavily twice in a row," Michael Portillo, one of at least three potential challengers for the top party job, told BBC television. But, he added: "I very much hope that whatever happens, William will continue as leader. It would be a grave error for anyone this evening to start leaping in."

The Conservative Party went into the election with its fewest seats in Parliament since 1906. The party initially hoped to halve Labor's 179-seat majority. As the campaign progressed and Labor continued to score well in opinion polls, the Tories lowered their sights, hoping to reduce Labor's majority to 100.

Instead, with two-thirds of the vote counted, television projected that Labor had at least a 163-to-165-seat majority.

Either figure would make Blair's the largest second-term majority in Parliament--greater even than the 144-seat majority won by popular Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her 1983 reelection.

Hague had indicated that he would fight to hold on to the leadership after the election, but the projected Tory losses make it unlikely that he will succeed. Political analysts say two factors could work in his favor if his losses are not too great: His party has more conservative hard-liners than moderates, and challengers may ultimately decide that they do not want to spend four years or more as the leader of a divided and debilitated opposition.

Of more urgent concern to the country was the meaning of the low voter turnout. Political pundits debated whether it signaled dissatisfaction with the Labor government or certainty that Labor would win.

Voter Fatigue After Long Campaign

Many voters had said they were tired of the campaign, which dragged on longer than usual after Blair postponed the election date by a month because of a nationwide outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease among livestock.

David Wildly, a west London polling official who has worked in 10 elections, said he did not believe that voters were uninterested.

"This is a unique situation," Wildly said. "There is a feel-good factor with the economy, and you have one party commanding a huge lead. Where there is a belief that there will be a landslide by one party, there is a feeling that one vote is not critical."

But Education Minister David Blunkett expressed concern.

"I think people are switched off politics," said Blunkett, who is expected to be home secretary in the new government.

"Young people in particular don't see it as being relevant to their lives," he said.

No Hanging Chads on Standardized Ballot

Casting a ballot was far easier and more standardized in Britain than it was last year in the United States--a fact that drew many wry comments about Floridians and hanging chads from voters who marked their ballots with pencils tied to pieces of twine and then stuffed the votes into black, plastic boxes.

Asked how the ballots are transported from polling stations to counting centers, Wildly said there were no armored vehicles or police escorts such as the ones Britons had seen transporting disputed ballots around Florida.

"I get in my car, put the box in the back seat and drive it over," Wildly said. "I suppose we believe that discretion is the better part of valor."

In Northern Ireland, voting was marred by the shooting of two police officers and a woman outside a Londonderry polling booth. The election for that province's 18 seats in the House of Commons is a contest between local Roman Catholic and Protestant political parties and is seen as a test for the survival of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord.

The counting of those ballots does not begin until today, and results are expected in the evening.

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