Whether or not the prime minister was cheered to the rafters at the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party after the local/European elections I do not know. That he was allowed an easy run by MPs is agreed. Given the extent of Labour's defeat (or non-victory if you are a loyalist), the continuing disaster in Iraq and the constant readiness of the prime minister to undermine what Labour is actually achieving at home, such passivity is both surprising and depressing. It is not wholly inexplicable, however. As many have pointed out, electoral calculation probably lies behind the reluctance of MPs to panic. Labour's vote is still remarkably 'efficient'. A large number of its MPs will be re-elected on an almost scandalously small fraction of the national vote. Furthermore, to the extent that the polls are not misleading, Labour remains well ahead of the Conservatives in that crucial indicator of public favour: who is best fitted to manage the economy. And the polls suggest that the benign effects of increased government spending have at last been discerned by the electorate. Although the prime minister is alleged to be no longer 'trusted' he is still personally popular, and the well-known Blair charm will be ladled out in gallons at the next general election. Even in the party's awkward squad, many MPs are convinced that Blair remains their surest electoral hope. They have probably also concluded that, given the proportionate decline of the old working class, working-class abstention matters less to Labour than in the past. There is thus less fear of antagonising the heartlands and more conviction that Blair's electoral coalition is, despite everything, intact.
LRB 8 July 2004 | PDF Download