For a man who’d just led the Labor Party to an unprecedented third term, Tony Blair seemed mighty miserable at the “declaration” of results in his home constituency of Sedgefield early Friday morning, and his wife, Cherie, seemed to be fighting back tears. Thirty minutes later, at his traditional post-election visit to Trimdon Labor Club, it was Tony’s turn to ward off the weepies. Why was he so emotional? Perhaps, like me, he was trying to make sense of the TV coverage.
Seconds after the polls closed at 10 p.m., the TV networks called the results based on exit polls. The verdict: a 66-seat majority for Labor, considerably reduced from the 165 margin after the 2001 election, but enough for Blair to push through all but his most controversial policies. *
Having made the call, the networks went into a tap-dancing routine for 40 minutes as they waited for the first constituency to announce official results. The smart money was on Sunderland South, first past the post for the last three general elections and with a team of counters recruited with the diligence of a college basketball team. Indeed, Sunderland South came through, delivering a result so obvious it defies the term “news”: word of a Labor victory in a working-class Northern constituency. Despite a 4 percent swing to the Conservatives, Labor still took 59 percent of the vote.
And so it continued. Because of Labor’s dominance in urban areas, where condensed geography speeds delivery of ballot boxes to counting halls, it was two and a half hours after the polls closed before the Tories won their first seat (an upset win in the London constituency of Putney). Although there were few surprises in the 21 predictable Labor wins in those first 150 minutes, there was some fine television to keep viewers from their beds: Baroness Thatcher rebuking an interviewer who suggested that things were looking good for the Conservatives by saying that they were “not good enough,” and pundits involved in a political round table coming perilously close to a brawl.
The British election process is intrinsically theatrical. When the returning officer gathers the candidates on stage for the declaration of results, they collude not to reveal the winner until the last total is announced. The candidates seem to compete for the best poker face—with what appears to be the brave smile of a loser often turning into a winner’s Cheshire cat grin.
Labor achieved the 324 seats required for a majority in the House of Commons at 4:28 a.m., but some of the most dramatic results came after most Brits were in bed. At 4:35, Respect’s George Galloway beat Labor’s Oona King in what had been a safer-than-safe Labor seat. Galloway fought his campaign, in a constituency where 40 percent of voters are Muslims, almost exclusively on the Iraq war, which loyal Blairite King had supported. (For more on the Bethnal Green race, see thisSlate dispatch.) Galloway looked smug as he made a shockingly intemperate attack on Blair. King was reluctantly gracious in defeat, promising that Labor would regain the seat (as soon as voters came to their senses, presumably).
In far-left Blaenau Gwent, New Labor suffered another bloody nose, as independent candidate Peter Law overcame last election’s 19,000-vote Labor majority. Law had quit the Labor Party after the central office dictated that the local party must use a woman-only shortlist to choose its parliamentary candidate. Law, who underwent brain surgery just before the start of the campaign, claimed that his win was a blow against New Labor “using the system to give people jobs”; local people “don’t want to be taken for granted,” he explained.
As I write on Friday morning London time, Labor has won 353 seats, the Conservatives 196, the Lib Dems 61, Welsh and Scottish nationalist parties nine, Respect one, and independents two, with 23 still to declare. Labor seems likely to meet or surpass the exit-poll prediction of a 66-seat majority, but the day-after rumblings are grim. Papers on the left and right are calling on Blair to step down as leader of the Labor Party sooner rather than later. There’s widespread moaning about the inequities of an electoral system in which Labor took 36 percent of the vote but 57 percent of the seats, the Conservatives 33 percent of the vote and 31 percent of seats, and the Lib Dems 23 percent of the vote but only 10 percent of seats.
Michael Howard is all smiles at the Conservatives’ net gain of 35 seats, but with a total around 200, the Tories have fallen fast and hard from the 18 years of power that began with Margaret Thatcher’s first election win in 1979, and they certainly no longer look like the “natural party of government.” On Friday, Howard announced he would step down from the leadership as soon as his party figures out how to choose a new leader.
For all their self-congratulation, the Liberal Democrats must also be disappointed. They had predicted their emergence as the “real alternative” in 2005, with this election heralding the dawn of a new era, but they’re still a distant third, having gained just nine additional seats over 2001.
So, why did Tony Blair look so glum this morning? The emotional post-declaration speech of challenger Reg Keys—a man who lost his son in Iraq and took 10 percent of the Sedgefield vote on an anti-war/anti-Blair ticket—no doubt played a part, but my guess is that Blair was profoundly depressed at the prospect of four or five more years of rudeness.
Post Script: If you’re curious what happened in the constituencies I visited, click here.
Correction, May 9, 2005: This article originally gave the erroneous impression that, with a Labor majority of 66 seats, the party would be unable to enact legislation if 66 or more party members defied the government. In fact, the government would be unable to push through legislation if 34 or more Labor MPs voted against party policy. In the 2001 parliament, this happened at least nine times. (Return to corrected paragraph.)