A Labor Leader Britain Can Live With?

Britain's Conservative Party seemed to run out of gas years ago. Yet it remains in power because the opposition Labor Party has never convinced voters it can do a better job. Finally, this stalemate could be coming to an end.

On July 21, Laborites are expected to elect Tony Blair, a boyish-looking barrister, to replace party leader John Smith, who died of a heart attack in May. While Smith was widely respected, he was too cautious to take advantage of Tory self-destruction. The telegenic, Oxford-educated, moderate Blair promises to be different, and at 41 he is already being widely pitched as Britain's next Prime Minister.

Taking his cues from Bill Clinton's 1992 U.S. campaign, Blair stumps for economic growth and job creation, public-private partnerships, and a better-educated workforce. He doesn't scare voters with talk of income redistribution and state ownership of industry. "We want a dynamic market economy," he says in interviews.

This new realism is beginning to get business leaders' recognition. "The Labor Party has changed in important ways and is offering a set of policies which deserve our attention," says Confederation of British Industry Director Howard Davies.

With the next general election expected in late 1996, Blair has two years to convince voters that Labor is a safe alternative again. As one of the party's Young Turks, he has already laid some of the groundwork. Last year, he helped push through reforms to end union dominance of Labor. Previously, he was key to the fight against closed union shops. As shadow Home Secretary, he trumped Conservatives with tough positions on crime.

Voters responded by overwhelmingly tilting to Labor candidates in June's European Parliament elections. And they're telling pollsters that they'd favor Labor over the Conservatives in the next general election.

Of course, this edge could evaporate. In the last general election in 1992, the memory of nationalized industries and confiscatory taxes kept voters from returning Labor to power. A Labor plan to raise social spending and taxes badly hurt the party's standard bearer, Neil Kinnock.

Blair avoids that trap by refusing to reveal his fiscal plans. He'll only say he favors progressive taxation, adding that Prime Minister John Major promised not to hike taxes yet this spring raised them more than Smith's '92 plan would have. Blair isn't abandoning Labor's long-standing call for a minimum wage, but he reassures business by favoring a lower one for youth. He also is de-emphasizing full employment, another Labor shibboleth.

STRONG SUPPORT. Such vagueness has led to charges that Blair's agenda is lightweight. But he is ignoring the critics and playing more to the millions of disaffected Tories in the south, where unemployment is high.

In fact, Labor insiders say he has already begun his campaign with his "politics of change"--a pledge to move away from class warfare toward a partnership among business, government, and workers. And unlike Major, he is expected to have his party united behind him. While Tory Euroskeptics are constantly harassing Major, Labor firmly backs Blair's embrace of the European Union. Blair is likely to work better with Europe's leaders.

If Blair has an Achilles' heel, it's his youthfulness and inexperience. He has been in politics just 10 years. He has never held a ministerial job. But Labor, which has been out of No.10 Downing Street since 1979, has few members with solid credentials. Now it's up to British voters to decide if 15 years out of power is long enough--and if Blair has what it takes to break the spell.

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