Labour Pains

Why the British General Election Is a Referendum on Its Past

Courtesy Reuters

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown could delay the inevitable for only so long. Convention requires the government to hold general elections every five years, and with the last election held in 2005, that deadline was drawing inexorably closer. Although Brown and his Labour Party were slipping in popularity, Brown called elections for May 6.

This election will be far from ordinary. It is not only a referendum on Brown, who became party leader and prime minister in 2007, after waiting ten years for the more charismatic Tony Blair to resign; it is also a referendum on Labour's 13 years in power and, on an even more basic level, on the economic principles that have guided the party's rule. It is in such moments that, as Karl Marx once mused, "all that is solid melts into air." Britain has had a few such upheavals before. The 2010 election will likely be one, and its consequences for foreign and domestic policy will be profound.

In 1997, a public hungry for change after almost 20 years of Conservative Party rule handed Labour a landslide victory in the House of Commons. Labour -- which had rebranded itself New Labour during the campaign -- initially adopted a degree of economic conservativism that even actual Conservatives had shied away from when in power. It granted operational independence to the Bank of England, honored campaign pledges not to raise taxes, and favored fiscal prudence over more traditional left-wing redistributive policies. It also abided by the economic principles that the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher introduced in the 1980s, avoiding inflation above all.

This political course was made possible by the economic conditions of the late 1990s. The global boom of those years, and the consequent jump in property prices in the United Kingdom (and elsewhere), improved the living standards for most voters. A booming City of London generated abundant tax revenue, and Labour was able to boost public spending on education and healthcare, increase state pensions and salaries for doctors and public-sector managers,

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