Britain Gets Its Last Chance To Have Its Say On The Blair Era

Tuesday, May 1st 2007, 2:44 pm
By: News On 6

LONDON (AP) _ His name does not appear on any ballots but when Britain's voters go to the polls Thursday, Prime Minister Tony Blair will be facing the electorate for the last time.

Many see the local elections as a final popular verdict on Blair's premiership, which is expected to end in the coming weeks. On Tuesday, the 10th anniversary of the day he was elected, Blair told British TV he would make a ``definitive'' statement next week on his future.

``A significant number of people will use this vote as a protest vote _ not against a party, but against Tony Blair,'' said Dave Edler, a 44-year-old actor and candidate for the Green Party in a constituency near Bath, about 115 miles west of London.

A decade after he was first elected in 1997 _ the youngest prime minister since 1812 _ support for Blair has fallen. The era of ``Cool Britannia'' is over, and the unpopular war in Iraq, Blair's closeness to President Bush and a scandal involving allegations that political honors were traded for cash have dogged his premiership.

Speculation over when he would leave has become a national pastime.

Even so, Blair can boast a formidable record in his nearly 10 years in power: Britain's longest stretch of postwar prosperity, national health care reforms and successful peace efforts in Northern Ireland are all achievements on which Labour can campaign.

More than 10,000 local council seats are being contested in England. In Scotland, voters are choosing their local representation as well as the Scottish Parliament, which deals with Scotland-only issues. And in Wales, voters will elect their national assembly.

In Scotland, Blair's Labour Party will be fighting off a challenge from the pro-independence Scottish National Party, which has no less a star than Edinburgh-born Sean Connery endorsing its platform.

Blair has urged voters not to turn to the SNP just to give him ``a kicking one last time on my way out of the door.'' But party leader Alex Salmond said Blair _ along with the war in Iraq and the decision to replace Britain's nuclear deterrent _ is one of the issues voters want to talk about.

``Blair is nowhere liked. He's despised, in fact,'' Salmond told The Associated Press in Selkirk, Scotland. ``It's one of the factors.''

A poll, conducted for The Independent newspaper in late April, said nationwide support for Labour stood at 27 percent compared to 36 percent for the opposition Conservatives. The poll, which included responses from 615 people, would have a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points. The paper said it was the lowest showing for Labour since 1983.

The disfavor of Blair and Labour may also be down to their longevity in office, said Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics.

``The British electorate has become fed up with a government that has been in power for a long time,'' Travers said. ``They don't like over-powerful prime ministers in power for too long, they don't like governments of one party in power for too long.''

Voters seemed to agree that it was simply time for a change.

``I've been impressed by Blair, but I think he's run his course and it's probably time for a change,'' taxi driver Victor Aldridge said last week in the Leeds suburb of Roundhay, about 200 miles north of London.

If Labour does rack up significant losses in these polls, it will give additional momentum to David Cameron's re-energized Conservative Party, which hopes to gain power in elections likely to be held in 2009 or 2010. The local ballots, Travers said, are a way of ``testing the Cameron affect.''

How the electorate reacts to Gordon Brown, the current Treasury chief who is nearly a lock to take over for Blair, will also be dissected. Brown himself told ITV News the electorate will be ``voting on all of us'' _ not just Blair _ when they mark their ballots.

But the chancellor of the exchequer isn't considered as much of a factor in these elections as the prime minister, said Patrick Dunleavy, a political scientist at the London School of Economics.

``In the local elections, the Brown camp will say this is the last chance for voters to kick Tony Blair,'' Dunleavy said. ``The Conservatives will say this is a vote against Gordon Brown because he's already considered to be the leader in waiting. It's really a bit hard to tell, but I would think most voters are a little bit retrospective.''