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Bleak Day Seen for Blair's Party in British Vote

Premier's support of the Iraq war may cost ruling Laborites in local races. Conservatives may also face setbacks amid rise of an anti-Europe party.

June 10, 2004|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — Maybe Prime Minister Tony Blair was right to be away this week at the Group of 8 summit in Georgia.

British voters go to the polls today in elections to fill local offices and choose members of the European Parliament, and nearly everyone is predicting that it will be a bleak day for Blair's Labor Party.

For those not too apathetic to go to the polls, the vote is mainly a chance to voice protests against Blair and Labor, and against the Conservative Party as well, on issues that include immigration, European integration and -- especially -- the war in Iraq.

Even the expected victory of Labor's best-known candidate, London Mayor Ken Livingstone, who is running for a second term, would not be particularly good news for Blair. A vociferous critic of the Iraq war whom the prime minister had once tried to oust from the party for his unapologetically hard-left stands, Livingstone is a rejection of all that Blair has stood for in his political career.

But the mayor has built an enduring rapport with voters, largely by tackling traffic jams through an innovative center-city congestion charge and adding more buses to speed up public transit. He has also put more police on the streets.

Ironically, Livingstone's main weakness appears to be that he is running on the Labor ticket, not as an independent, which means that some voters may reject him because of ties to Blair. The prime minister's disapproval ratings hover around 60%, largely because of the war.

Livingstone's chief opponent is Conservative Steve Norris, who has placed billboards around the city promising to crack down on crime and who, on the stump, has attacked Livingstone as a free-spender.

A poll Sunday for the Times of London found Labor only narrowly in the lead among voters nationwide, supported by 25% to 26% of voters, compared with 24% for the Conservatives. But Britain's third major party, the Liberal Democrats -- which opposed the war in Iraq -- and an upstart anti-Europe party, the U.K. Independence Party, look set to make strong gains.

According to the poll by the Populus agency, which surveyed more than 1,000 adults around the country June 4-6, the Liberal Democrats could garner 18% of votes, and the UKIP, 13%.

Although the election will not have a direct effect on Blair's government -- general elections for Parliament are not due until 2006 -- a poor showing would increase calls for Blair to step aside and hand his party's leadership to Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, who is seen increasingly as a prime minister in waiting.

It will also be a test for whether Michael Howard, the new Conservative leader, will be able to resuscitate a party that has been in shambles for the last several years. Howard had hoped to make strong gains, based on the Tories' call for curtailing what he says is the one-way transfer of governing powers from Britain to the European Union in Brussels.

But the Conservatives apparently have been outflanked on their own issue by UKIP, which calls for Britain to quit the EU. The issue has strong appeal to members of the public irritated by EU rules and alleged wastefulness, and aghast that more immigrants might settle in Britain after last month's expansion of the union to include 10 new European states.

About 8 million voters are expected to take part in the election, dubbed Super Thursday, which will decide 6,000 places on 166 local councils in addition to the London mayoral race. Britons will also select 78 members of the European Parliament as part of elections being held around the EU in the coming days.

The UKIP's surprising rise dovetails with a recent grass-roots surge in patriotism in Britain, especially pride in English identity that is being manifested in the sudden proliferation of thousands of white-and-red flags showing the cross of St. George in connection with the upcoming European football championships. The flag has started appearing on cars, buses, hats and T-shirts, and outside most pubs, a display of national pride that traditionally has been restrained.

The UKIP also has found a charismatic candidate in Robert Kilroy-Silk, a silver-tongued former Parliament member and BBC talk show host who lost the latter job in January in a controversy over a newspaper column that many felt insulted Islam.

An election eve poll by YouGov said the UKIP was almost even with the Conservatives in London in the European Parliament voting, reflecting the appeal of its unambiguous anti-EU message as opposed to the Conservatives' more nuanced stance of staying in the EU but with reservations.

The campaign has been complicated by an ongoing imbroglio over the Labor government's experiment in mailing out ballots two weeks ahead of time to millions of voters in four northern districts. The postal votes were an attempt to increase participation, but opposition parties have branded it a fiasco because many ballots were late in being printed or were lost in the mail.

To many observers, the whole election looks like a muddle.

"A bewildering cocktail of candidates awaits us poor voters, spiced with the uncertain impact of postal ballots succumbing to late printing, the vagaries of the Royal Mail and impenetrable forms," said Evening Standard columnist Anne McElvoy. "It is a rare old mess."

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