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Britain's social realignment

17 May 2005

The evidence that Iraq hurt Blair is far from conclusive, argues David Burchell

JUST ABOUT every Australian media outlet explained Tony Blair’s relatively narrow victory in this month’s British general election in exactly the same way. It was the war, stupid. So the story goes, British voters were so angered by Blair’s involvement in the Iraq conflict that they punished Labour via that modern equivalent of divine justice, the ballot box.

It’s a persuasive explanation in large measure on account of the number of commentators who want to believe it. So rancorous and splenetic has been the public debate on the war, and so high-minded and thoroughly moral have been the loudest commentators, that there’s an almost limitless appetite on all sides for thunderbolts, comeuppances and just deserts.

There’s only one problem with the story: it’s not at all clear that it’s true. Actually, nobody is absolutely sure how important Iraq was in the election result. But almost nobody on the ground there seriously believes Iraq was the single decisive issue.

Moreover, the issues on which the main opposition Conservative Party gained some traction weren’t high-minded moral questions of international peace and friendship, but rather half-spoken, half-whispered home-grown anxieties about law and order, discipline and school discipline. There may be genuine reasons here for British Labour (like its Australian counterpart) to be concerned about its future. But if there are, Iraq is not obviously the key.

British voters gave different answers on Iraq during the campaign - depending at least partly on what question they were asked. Where voters were asked to nominate what for them was the most important election issue, Iraq usually ranked well behind the usual bread and butter issues like the economy, health and education. In a number of mainstream polls, such as an IRQ poll held in late April, Iraq was nominated as an election issue by around 3 per cent of respondents.

The two exceptions were a poll for the Guardian (a consistent Blair critic) in mid-April, and a poll for the famously anti-Blair BBC released a day before the election. The Guardian poll prompted respondents with a list of issues, and asked them to rank them in importance. Iraq was nominated as ‘very important’ by slightly fewer than one in five people - much higher than the other polls, though still behind the main bread and butter issues. Only in the BBC poll released on election eve the war suddenly leap ahead to 23 per cent, on a par with immigration. The BBC reported these results without much detail, and failed to explain the discrepancy.

There is no doubt that some people were greatly influenced by Iraq when they travelled to the ballot-box. The problem for some commentators is that these tended to be quite specific sorts of people.

Seats with large Muslim populations seem to have swung significantly more than the average against Labour. And Iraq presumably played a part in that. According to British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw - whose northern electorate is about one-quarter Muslim - fringe Muslim groups spent a large part of the campaign travelling the length and breadth of the country, preaching to fellow-Muslims about the need to vote for someone - anyone - other than Labour.

Since Straw himself was comfortably re-elected with the lost of only a few thousand votes, it seems this campaign had only moderate success. Anecdotally, commitment to the pan-Islamic cause in the British Muslim community is largely the province of the young and the comfortably-off. Iraq arguably served to widen rifts within the British Muslim community, rather than unite it.

Elsewhere, as in Australia, those most excited about Iraq tended to live in towns with high concentrations of the tertiary-educated - and particularly university centres. Cambridge swung from Labour to the staunchly anti-war centrist Liberal Democrats, as did other well-heeled seats in ‘varsity’ towns like Bristol, Leeds and Manchester.

In the university town of Cardiff, South Wales, where the Lib Dems polled strongly, one Labour canvasser reported that almost one in three people she door-knocked raised the war. Yet across Wales in working-class Neath, another Labour canvasser reported that not a single person in fifty households had so much as mentioned Iraq.

By all accounts, the major impact of Iraq on the Labour vote was its effect on the personal credibility of PM Tony Blair. Despite the passage of four public inquiries - none of which found him guilty of any untruths or personal wrongdoing - the simple fact that Blair’s arguments for going to war were proven wrong by events have inevitably stained his reputation, and left a residue of mistrust. Nowadays it’s hard for Blair to walk around in public without being accosted by some Old Testament prophet, whether from Left or Right, denouncing him to the heavens.

Yet it’s arguable that Blair’s critics have greatly overemphasised the impact of the ‘Blair the Liar’ campaign. Many ordinary Australians suspect John Howard’s integrity in the ‘children overboard’ affair, but they showed themselves at the ballot-box to more concerned with political competence than moral virtue. British voters have tended in the past to be similarly pragmatic.

In any case, Labour spent far less time rebutting the campaign about Tony Blair’s ‘lies’ than it did combating Conservative scare-campaigns on immigration and law and order. It’s been little reported in this country, but immigration regularly rated much higher than Iraq as an election issue. And the far-right anti-immigration British Nationalist Party more than doubled its support - securing double-figure percentage votes in several northern working-class electorates.

Like Australia in 2001 - but on a much larger scale - Britain has recently seen a growing influx of refugees, along with those claiming to be refugees on sometimes flimsy grounds. On the whole the government has managed this sensitively, avoiding the excessive hard-heartedness of tin-pot Little Englanders on the one hand and the lofty but metaphysical arguments of the ‘no borders’ brigade on the other.

But the issue still causes anxiety in older white working-class neighbourhoods. And the Conservative campaign director - former Liberal Party director Lynton Crosby - has been striving to create a ‘Howard’s battlers’ effect for British Conservative leader Michael Howard. Unfortunately for the ‘other’ Howard, though, Britain had no pre-election equivalent of the Tampa.

Indeed, perhaps the most striking result of the British election - something only too familiar to Australian observers - has been the social realignment of the British electorate. Increasingly, the Liberal Democrats (like the Greens here) are pitching for the university-educated social activists, while the Conservatives are pitching for as many socially conservative blue-collar workers as they can lay their hands on.

As in Australia, this leaves British Labour fighting a social battle on two fronts. It needs to keep faith with its traditional working-class, provincial base, and their generally pragmatic, socially protective concerns. But it can’t afford to lose all of the cosmopolitan tertiary-educated social idealists to the Lib Dems. Increasingly, as the two constituencies move further apart in their social views, it’s a difficult balancing-act.

But of course, that doesn’t make for as good a story as ‘Tony got his comeuppance’ •

David Burchell is a lecturer in humanities at the University of Western Sydney and associate editor of APO.

Photo: Jeff Gynane/ iStockphoto.com

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