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2005-05-06

Blair Wins Third Term; Majority Reduced Over Iraq War

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Prime Minister Tony Blair wins a historic third term in government but with a drastically reduced majority in parliament for his Labour party. We go to London to speak with longtime British politician, Tony Benn, the political editor of the Guardian (UK) and Tariq Ali, author and editor of the New Left Review. [includes rush transcript]

We begin today with the elections in Britain. Prime Minister Tony Blair has won a historic third term in government but with a drastically reduced majority in parliament for his Labour party. This is being attributed to widespread opposition to the occupation of Iraq and Blair’s close ties to President Bush.

With most results in at the time of this broadcast, Labour was heading for a majority of 66 seats, sharply down from its 165 majority in 2001.

In percentage terms, Labour won just 36% of the national vote, the Conservatives, 33%, and the Liberal Democrats 22%. The result puts Labour back in office with the lowest share of the vote in British electoral history.

Many voters accused Blair of misleading them by hyping intelligence on Iraq’s weapons to justify going to war. Blair, who celebrated his 52nd birthday on Friday, addressed his supporters in his home district before election results were announced.

  • Tony Blair, speaking to supporters shortly after polls closed on May 5, 2005.

In one of the biggest upsets of the night, George Galloway, of the anti-war Respect party, narrowly beat Labour’s MP Oona King, who voted for the Iraq war. That was considered one of the most bitter contests in the election and a significant defeat for Blair. Galloway was expelled from the ruling Labour Party in October 2003 after he was accused of encouraging British troops to disobey what he called "illegal orders". In his victory speech, Galloway told Blair, "All the people you killed, all the lies you told, have come back to haunt you." In January, I spoke with George Galloway in London and we talked about his opposition to the occupation of Iraq.

  • George Galloway speaking on January 31, 2005.

With last night’s election victory, Tony Blair won his place in British history, becoming only the second prime minister after Margaret Thatcher to win three elections in a row. He is also the first leader of the Labour party to win three successive terms.

  • Tony Benn, former Labour MP.
  • Michael White, political editor of the Guardian (UK).
  • Tariq Ali, author and editor of the New Left Review.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Blair, who celebrated his 52nd birthday on Friday, addressed his supporters in his home district before election results were announced. This is Prime Minister Tony Blair.

TONY BLAIR: If — and I say "if" — the predictions are right, it also looks as if the Labour Party is heading for the first time in its history for an historic third term. It’s not yet clear, obviously, what the majority is. It seems as if it’s clear, but also that the British people wanted the return of the Labour government but with a reduced majority. And we have to respond to that sensibly and wisely and responsibly. We have to make sure that we focus on the things that matter to people, the things that they’ve talked about to me during the course of this campaign: jobs and living standards and the national health service and schools and law and order. And the problems that we have in some of our communities, where still far too many young people find it hard to get on in life, far too many young couples find it hard to own their own homes. People worry about disrespect on the street and law and order in their communities. So, we have to respond to those things. And I know, too, that Iraq has been a divisive issue in this country but I hope now that we can unite again and look to the future, there and here.

AMY GOODMAN: British Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking to supporters shortly after polls closed last night. In one of the biggest upsets of the night, George Galloway of the anti-war Respect Party narrowly beat Labour’s M.P., Oona King, who voted for the Iraq war. That was considered one of the most bitter contests in the election and a significant defeat for Blair. Galloway was expelled from the ruling Labour Party in October 2003, after he was accused of encouraging British troops to disobey what he called illegal orders. In his victory speech, George Galloway told Blair, (quote), "All the people you killed, all the lies you told, have come back to haunt you." In January, I spoke with George Galloway in London right outside the offices of the B.B.C. We talked about his opposition to the occupation of Iraq.

GEORGE GALLOWAY: We have a very simple demand. We say that the two leaders who caused this disaster cannot possibly be a part of its solution. Bush and Blair and their forces will have to go from Iraq. That’s an absolute precondition for any resolution of this conflict. And they must talk with the resistance about how they’re going to do that, over what period of time. It would have to be short period of time, but I’m sure it could be organized by agreement with the resistance forces. That sounds far-fetched today, but it will one day have to be agreed, just like the American forces had to withdraw from Vietnam, so the American and British forces will have to withdraw from Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: George Galloway speaking in London on the day of the Iraqi elections. With last night’s election victory, Tony Blair won his place in British history, becoming only the second Prime Minister after Margaret Thatcher to win three elections in a row. He is also the first leader of the Labour Party to win three successive terms. In a minute, we’ll go to London to speak to Michael White, the Political Editor of the Guardian of London, but first we go to legendary British politician, former Labour M.P., Tony Benn. We reached him at his home in London just before this broadcast.

TONY BENN: In the British general election which finished earlier this morning, the government was re-elected, but with a very, very much reduced majority, and the main reason for that was the Iraq war. The Prime Minister has been telling people at different stages why he went along with President Bush. First of all, weapons of mass destruction, then that it was about bringing democracy to Iraq, then it was about — oh, I don’t know, just all sorts — regime change, but the reality is, and everybody knows this, when Bush was elected in 2000, O’Neill was his first Treasury Secretary, and he said the President decided then to invade Iraq, because he wanted the oil and bases because of the wobbly nature of the Saudi regime, which had always been previously very friendly. And Blair was told this, and he said to the President, "I’m afraid I cannot get through the House of Commons, the British Parliament, a vote for a regime change." So, I think what Bush said, "Well, we’ll send — you can send the U.N. in, because it will take me a few months to get my troops there." And so, Blair really, put crudely, lied to the British people about why he had gone to war. And this has now caught up with him. A huge number of people, the majority in Britain against the war. The number of casualties are still very high, mainly on the American sector. But they are still high, and also the question of trust has come in, and to be Prime Minister, if people don’t believe what you say, is a disadvantage. So the next thing people are worried about is will President Bush attack, bomb Iran in June or sometime soon? Because that’s been rumored. Seymour Hersh and Scott Ritter have warned of that, and I do believe that if there were to be an attack on Iran, it would now be totally impossible for Prime Minister Blair to give support to President Bush. So I think you have to look at this as a reduction of Blair’s majority in the House of Commons, quite enough to govern, but even more important that his freedom of action to go along with the policy of doing everything that the White House tells him, that policy has come to a halt. And from my point of view, that’s a very good thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Former British M.P., Tony Benn, speaking in London. We’re joined on the telephone right now from the — by the Political Editor of the London Guardian, Michael White. We’re also joined by Tariq Ali, well known author and activist. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! We’ll turn first to the political editor of the Guardian. Your analysis of these elections, your response to the latest results in.

MICHAEL WHITE: Well, I feel very fairly sure that Tony Blair won the third term majority. It’s the first time a Labour leader in this country has ever done so. Labour Party has been a big cultural and political problem since [inaudible] Democrats in the United States in the last forty or fifty years and this is respondent, and as you rightly say, he has done it with a reduced majority. One of his colleagues said to me a few minutes ago, "If you had told me eight or nine years ago that we would have got a majority of 16 or 17 in the British Parliament and a third term, I would have said thank you very much." But politics is a matter of perception, and Mr. Blair’s majority has been halved, and he is now seen as a weakened leader, and I don’t imagine he will stay in power all that much longer. Although again, his friends say he promised to serve a full term and step down before the next election. That’s in probably in four years time, and that’s what he will do. Most people disagree with that.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, your response?

TARIQ ALI: Well, I agree actually with what Michael has said. I think from my point of view, and from the point of view of the anti-war movement in Britain, this is the best result we could have expected, Blair down. I thought he would get a majority of 100-plus. I’m very pleasantly surprised that it’s in the region of between 60 and 70. George Galloway in Parliament to overturning a 10,000 majority, other Labour war mongers like former Minister Barbara Roche in my own constituency, defeated by a 15% swing to anti-war Liberal Democrat candidate, so it’s the best one could have expected. I mean, it would have been tremendous if Blair had lost his majority altogether, but that rarely happens given the size of the majority. It’s been cut right down. I think Michael White is right. I mean within the Labour Party people are openly now discussing replacing Blair. He’s a wounded Prime Minister. I mean, I remember when Harold Wilson got a majority of nearly 70 seats in 1966, Labour were jubilant. It was a large, large majority, but times have changed now. And also, Amy, I think it’s important to point out, as you did, that this is the lowest share of the vote in British electoral history. I mean, with 36% of the vote, Blair has 353 seats with 22% of the vote, the Liberals have 62, the Tories with 33% of the vote have 196. So, what is becoming very clear is that this is a pretty undemocratic electoral system, and if you had a system of proportional representation and electoral reform was pushed through, the country has a natural anti-Tory majority. And I hope that citizens in Britain now will really work hard to reform the electoral system.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Tariq Ali, well-known author and activist — analyst and Michael White, Political Editor of the London Guardian. We’re going to break. Then we’ll come back to them.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking about the historic elections in Britain right now. Again, Tony Blair, Prime Minister — first time since Margaret Thatcher — won three terms, but with a, well, much smaller majority of the parliamentary support and vote. We are joined on the phone by Tariq Ali, author and editor of The New Left Review. Tariq Ali, can you talk about this smoking gun, July 2002, memo that came out, that talked about — we now know — what Tony Blair knew, and perhaps when he knew it, before the invasion?

TARIQ ALI: Well, this, Amy, is of course what is being talked about a lot. Blair has denied it, but no one believes him. I’m afraid his credibility is very low. The story is that he was asked by Bush a long time before any of the excuses and pretexts were manufactured, that the United States was determined to remove Saddam Hussein, and Blair agreed to it. This has now been published in the press. One of the more moving things in the elections last night was Blair in his own constituency being challenged by the father of a soldier who had died in the Iraq war, and this guy got 10% of the vote, 4,000 votes, without any organization, and when it was his turn to speak with Blair behind him, he denounced Blair for having told untruths, for having defied international law, for having made up excuses, and he said, "I dedicate this campaign to the 88 British soldiers who have died, and the Prime Minister, who has not had the decency to apologize to us and who refuses to see the war wounded." And seeing Blair’s face as this was being said was quite a revelation. He looks pretty much a wrecked leader. So, despite the fact that he could go on for four years, it’s unlikely. Also, we shouldn’t forget that 139 Labour members of Parliament voted against the war, and so, you will now have a much strengthened left inside the parliamentary Labour Party, which will not make it easy for Blair to do things.

AMY GOODMAN: Tariq Ali, will Tony Blair serve a full term?

TARIQ ALI: I think it’s extremely unlikely that he will serve his full term, Amy. He is very discredited, so despite this historic third term it takes place in circumstances where the Prime Minister is one of the most hated politicians in the country, and I think his own supporters were promised — I mean, some of the Blairites in the media were saying, hold your noses, vote Blair, and you will get Brown. Now, in my opinion, Brown isn’t all that much better than him, but nonetheless, I think the Labour Party realizes that Blair is a busted flush. He will have to go. The only question is the timing. I mean, soon, I think, if he carries on in this fashion, the men in white coats will visit him and say it’s time to go.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, we only have 30 seconds, but more on the victory of George Galloway, who was expelled from the Labour Party, as well as the man who voted against Blair, who lost his son in Iraq.

TARIQ ALI: This was the high point of the election. The Labour leadership had expended a great deal of energy in sending its top people to campaign against George Galloway. Hitchens and other right wing journalists in the British media had been denouncing Galloway. And his victory was a tremendous triumph for the anti-war movement. And Galloway immediately dedicated this victory to the people of Iraq and to the people who had been killed and said it was payback time for Blair. So, it will be very good to have him back in Parliament, agitating and arguing against the war and demanding a rapid British withdrawal.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, thank you very much for joining us, Tariq Ali, author and editor of The New Left Review. Thank you.

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