Outside the La Salette Roman Catholic Primary School in Hornchurch, John Cryer’s helpers are frantically inflating red balloons. While the kids crowd round the helium cylinder, the candidate chats with their parents. As one volunteer explains, “Young mothers are a key demographic for us. Labour has done a lot for women in terms of childcare, flexible working, increased child benefits, etc. But women don’t seem to be liking Tony Blair.” Cryer was first elected to Parliament in Labour’s 1997 landslide; most of his constituents have moved to this white suburb from London’s East End. Those who are not retired work clerical jobs or at the Ford plant in nearby Dagenham, one of Britain’s last surviving car manufacturers. Their parents, says Cryer, voted Labour, or Communist. Judging by the response when he knocks on their doors, he knows a startling number of them personally. And yet he’s struggling to retain a fragile 1,500-vote majority over the Conservatives.
A few miles west, in Bethnal Green, where Jews and Communists fought Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts in 1936, Labour’s Oona King is also struggling to hold her seat–this time against Respect, the party born of the Stop the War Coalition. More than half the voters here are Muslim, mostly from Bangladesh, living in overcrowded poverty among a scatter of chic new wine bars. Aiming to turn the election into a referendum on the Iraq War, Respect has parachuted in its flamboyant leader, George Galloway–a former MP sacked from Labour for allegedly inciting British troops to disobey their orders. Bitterness has bred violence: King, who is black and Jewish and voted for the war, has been pelted with eggs by Galloway supporters, and Galloway was menaced by a radical Muslim group that says voting is a sin. At an assembly organized by the East London Communities Organization, Galloway’s attacks on New Labour brought roars of approval from the large Muslim contingent in the audience; union delegates cheered as King rehearsed the benefits she’s won in Westminster for the community. The Liberal Democrat and Tory candidates, both Asian men with decades of local experience, struggled to make themselves heard.
The “Big Tent” vote, which first brought Blair to power in 1997, is shrinking from both sides. In Hornchurch, voters fret about immigrants (though few are in evidence) in the blunt language favored by the tabloids and the Tories. Lynton Crosby, the Tory spin doctor who harnessed resentment of foreigners to devastating effect in his native Australia, calls it his “dog whistle” strategy, designed to reach the instincts, not the brain. The insecurity produced by rapid change in people’s working lives–outsourcing, New Labour’s support for a more “flexible” labor force, and the decline of union power–makes fertile ground for such tactics. In Bethnal Green the issue is the war, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, respect for Muslim communities; Galloway’s rhetoric, too, plays on fear as well as rage. Labour’s effort to turn the campaign into a celebration of its achievements in the economy and public services–“If you value it, vote for it”–has met with some success but limited enthusiasm. Across the country, voters feel disenfranchised–and betrayed.
The Iraq War is a big part of the story, although it hasn’t featured much in the opinion polls. More than the war itself, voters resent the fact that they have been misled and condescended to: Even for those who didn’t follow the details, the trail of scandals and evasions–the flawed intelligence, the “dodgy dossier,” the death of weapons expert David Kelly, the refusal to publish the attorney general’s advice on the war’s legality–has led to the conclusion that Blair can’t be trusted. New Labour’s broken promises–on privatization in the health service, on university tuition fees, on civil liberties–have come to seem like symptoms of a deeper character flaw. In Blair’s own Sedgefield seat, Reg Keys, a member of Military Families Against the War whose son was killed in Iraq, is standing against the Prime Minister. Jon Lansman, a veteran Labour activist now working on Keys’s campaign, is surprised at the depth of anger that has been uncovered: “This is a very working-class constituency, so it’s not a hotbed of opposition to the war. But there’s a great resentment at Blair for not getting into the community–his attitude has been to take it for granted, as he has the Labour Party.”
The problem for those who would like to use the ballot box to protest against Blair is that there is still no viable alternative to Labour. In many areas a vote for a third party–most often Charles Kennedy’s Liberal Democrats, who on issues like taxes, tuition fees and civil liberties are now to Labour’s left–risks letting a Tory in. In the campaign’s last full week, both Kennedy and Tory leader Michael Howard have pushed Blair’s handling of the war back up into the headlines, helped by the defection to Kennedy’s party of veteran Labour MP Brian Sedgemore in protest at Blair’s “lies.” But the brief surge in Tory support early in the campaign may turn out to have been the government’s secret weapon. Howard’s heavy-handed harping on race and immigration seems to have crossed a line, even in Britain, allowing Labour to twist the Tory slogan “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” into a deft reminder of Britain’s eighteen years under conservatism: “Are you remembering what we’re remembering?”
Though it is now clear that Blair has become his party’s biggest liability, he will still win his coveted third term. New Labour has made itself the natural party of government–or at least the natural winner of elections. The left may hope that a sharply reduced majority will force Blair to resign in favor of Chancellor Gordon Brown–or into serious negotiations with the Liberal Democrats. But Blair has pledged to serve a full term, and it’s not clear that Brown (who maintained a strategic silence in the run-up to war) genuinely differs from his boss on any question except who should be prime minister. The overwhelming likelihood is that on May 6 Britain will wake up to more of the same: moderately progressive economics, slavish adherence to much of the Bush foreign policy and a centralized politics in which the grassroots are neglected and civil liberties sacrificed in the pursuit of power.