AAnthony Sanders lthough the war is issue number one amongst our nation’s leaders, the controversy surrounding it has yet to disrupt the power structure of the major parties. George W. Bush administration officials are not likely to march out of a cabinet meeting in support of a cease-fire, and no major Democrats threatened to leave the party if it failed to support invading Iraq. In Great Britain, however, there’s a different story.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair is among the most centrist members of his party. He has transformed the British Labor Party from a social democrat, if not socialist, “old left” party into a “third-way” technocratic party – a party that works in the name of the free market system, but seeks to regulate the market in the direction of social justice. This has created great strain in the Labor Party. Until now most in the party have by-and-large supported Blair because they remember how bad they did in the Margaret Thatcher era. Then party members would publicly shout “three cheers for Socialism!” at party conferences, only to be demolished in the general election.
Traditional Labor supporters have bit their tongues and followed Blair into two successive electoral landslides. Now, however, emboldened by that success, the rifts between Labor’s free marketers and the socialists might be about to break open. At issue, of course, is Blair’s support of Bush’s Iraq policy. The free market Laborites are by instinct inclined to support the United States and therefore are inclined to support Bush. This is the natural way for a pro-American European to act. The only problem is that most Labor members are not pro-American Europeans. Maybe they were pro-Clinton Europeans, but they do not hold a pro-American outlook.
Consequently, some of Blair’s cabinet ministers threatened that they would resign if Britain invaded Iraq without a U.N. Security Council authorization. When push came to shove a handful actually did. The House of Commons held a vote where Blair garnered a large majority of votes in favor of invading Iraq. However, more than a hundred members of his own party voted against him. Blair has survived his first test, but unless the war ends quite successfully (which, as we know, is doubtful), he might not survive for much longer.
It might be near the time for “Old Labor” supporters to play their hand. Blair is becoming much more like a moderate member of Britain’s Conservative Party than a mainstream Laborite. There are also the Liberal Democrats, the only major party who were against military intervention. The liberals currently hold more seats in parliament than they have at any time since the early years of the 20th century.
The rift in the Labor Party between the moderate (if not center-right) members, such as Blair, and the socialists, coupled with the pro-war Conservatives and the antiwar stance of a strong Liberal Democrat Party, make for a tinderbox in the British houses of parliament. If left-wing laborites turn against Blair, all manner of things might happen. On many economic policies Blair, and therefore the Labor Party, is to the right of the liberals. Most antiwar laborites are not happy about this. The war might be the last straw for many of them, and we might witness a perhaps temporary but nonetheless real exodus from Labor to the Liberal Democrats. This is less likely to occur if Labor’s left thinks it could oust Blair from power and “take back the party.”
However, Blair has many cronies in the upper echelons of the party. They got where they are through his political will and will follow him to the end. There is no chance of them jumping ship to the conservatives, as their party is in a continual state of upheaval that shows little sign of abating. Therefore, something has to give.
Throughout the Thatcher years, old school Labor socialists dreamed of the day when British voters would shake-off Maggie’s charm and embrace a renewed love for the welfare state. Those dreams might have mellowed a bit with the demise of communism and six years of power, but replace the name “Thatcher” with “Blair” and the dreams remain. Before Blair came to power in 1997, he told his rank-and-file they could not advocate what they want (a reversal of the Thatcher era) and get elected. Now that they have such a strong majority that advice is not as apropos. If Labor’s left does not act against Blair because of Iraq, it is hard to imagine when they would. Other “third-way” centrists stand in line behind Blair. It’s not like once he steps down a leftist will take his place.
So, political combat might be their only option. We might be about to witness another instance of the left eating the left. And isn’t it delicious.