The Progressive Fix

Labour’s Last Stand?

Things look grim for British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Heading into tonight’s third and final debate, his Labour Party trails not only the Conservatives, but even the Liberal Democrats, who usually finish a distant third. London odds-makers don’t give much for Brown’s chances of pulling off a Harry Truman-like upset.

If the pollsters and bookies are right, the May 6 election could end a remarkable, 13-year run in power by the “New Labour” tandem of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. But in Britain, electoral victory is denominated in parliamentary seats, not popular votes. The Lib Dems’ unexpected rise, behind a breakout performance by party leader Nicholas Clegg in the first debate, has scrambled the race in ways that make a variety of untoward outcomes possible, if not probable.

Many observers are predicting a hung parliament if the Lib Dems win enough seats to deprive either of their opponents a majority. This would trigger intense efforts by Labour and the Tories to woo the Lib Dems into a coalition government. In any case, however, the result likely would be curtains for Gordon Brown.

Tonight’s debate is probably his last chance to reverse Labour’s slumping prospects. It’s on the economy, which would ordinarily be Brown’s forte, but Britain’s economy also has been hammered by the financial crisis. It’s also true that Labour governments, under pressure from traditional constituencies and the unreconstructed “Old Labour” left, spent heavily on public services. Now those services will likely face draconian cuts as the next government grapples with ways to whittle down a huge (by British standards) $236 billion deficit.

But the dismal economic picture isn’t Labour’s only problem. Public worries about immigration also have roiled the race. Brown stumbled yesterday when he was caught on tape calling one voter who expressed such qualms a “bigoted woman.” He then compounded the gaffe by going to her house to apologize, ensuring that the incident dominated campaign coverage.

If the episode underscored Brown’s lack of political touch, it ought to be said in fairness that 13 years is a long time for any party to hold power in Britain. Clegg has bolted from obscurity by tapping into the inchoate desire for “change” that another newcomer, Barack Obama, tapped so effectively here in 2008.

If this really is Labour’s last stand, it’s worth recalling a few things about its significance for U.S. progressives. First, “New Labour” was a joint, Blair-Brown project that borrowed heavily from Bill Clinton’s New Democrat innovation. In a similar fashion, they helped Labour cast off old socialist dogma and revive itself as a modernizing force not only in Britain but in center-left politics generally.

Not the least of New Labour’s achievements was a long economic boom whose chief architect, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was none other than Gordon Brown. Unlike France and Germany, Britain enjoyed robust growth rates and low unemployment. It also depoliticized monetary policy, created new incentives for work, kept labor markets flexible and encouraged innovation and trade.

Finally, Blair and Brown were, and remain, sturdy friends of the United States. Blair stood with America after 9/11, was a forthright critic of the kind of fashionable anti-Americanism in which Clegg indulges, and risked his career by supporting the Iraq war. Brown likewise has firmly backed President Obama’s counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, despite mounting pressures within his own party and a war-weary public to bring British troops home.

Americans of course have no business mucking around in British elections. But if Gordon Brown does go down next week, we should recognize at least that we have lost a staunch friend and faithful ally.

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