Democrats: Watch Blair

On June 7, the British people will go to the polls. Rest assured, their election will be spared much of the drama Americans endured last fall, as there is almost no chance Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labour Party will lose.

With Labour's huge margin in Parliament and double-digit lead in the polls, the election may not be a test for pundits. But Democrats should watch closely; this contest is a big test for the Clinton legacy and the future of their party.

If Mr. Blair is reelected by a large margin, it will be a reaffirmation of the "third way" politics he and Bill Clinton brought to their parties. Moreover, much as Mr. Clinton's victories in 1992 and 1996 helped point the way to victory for "New" Labour four years ago, a Blair victory will provide a roadmap for Democrats to take back the Congress and White House.

With Blair now the undisputed leader of third-way politics, a big New Labour win will rejuvenate the third-way wing of the Democratic Party (the New Democrats), which in turn will help secure Clinton's legacy as a progressive reformer.

The ties between New Democrats and New Labour go back more than 10 years, as progressive thinkers among both began to rethink their ideologies. They were determined to find a third way between liberalism and unbridled free-market conservatism.

"The change we must make isn't liberal or conservative. It's both, and it's different," Clinton said, as he announced his candidacy in October 1991. Clinton then ran on a platform that promoted middle-class tax relief, fiscal discipline, more police officers on the street, and time limits on welfare. In 1997, it was Blair's turn, as he cajoled Labour to drop Clause Four of its party charter, which called for state ownership of the means of production and resolutely proclaimed at his first party conference as prime minister that "modernization is not the enemy of social justice, but its ally."

Unfortunately, scandal is not an ally of modernization. Impeachment effectively halted the New Democrats' march as Clinton was unable to champion his policy agenda and unwilling to antagonize congressional liberals who would ultimately judge him. But with scandal threatening to be his most enduring legacy, Clinton looked abroad to secure his record as a reformer who remade worldwide progressivism, holding meetings with third-way leaders from all over the world.

Now, it's up to Clinton's old friend Blair to keep the third-way movement vibrant, and it appears he will not disappoint. Blair is running a self-consciously New Labour campaign.

He is preaching economic stability and growth while promising once again not to raise income taxes. In true third-way fashion, Blair is coupling new investments in education and healthcare with a call for responsibility. More money may be spent for schools and the National Health Service, but New Labour will also undertake a radical reform of the delivery of public services. Blair and his party seek full employment, but they also demand that "if you can get a job, it is your obligation to get one." It's no wonder that protesters from the Socialist Workers Party are joining Tory hecklers on the campaign trail.

This third-way approach has put New Labour at least 12 points ahead in recent polls, and left the Conservatives running a campaign that sounds like the "Greatest Hits of the Bush Campaigns, 1988 to 2000": a huge tax cut that no one believes Britain can afford, and their own version of the Willie Horton ad that alleges an early prison release program led directly to thousands of crimes.

Democrats can only hope that in 2004, they face an opposition as devoid of ideas as this year's Tories. Yet the lesson of Blair's victory will not be to hope for a weak opponent, but that the third way works, not just for Clinton, but for candidates in elections worldwide. This new approach to progressive politics may be Clinton's most important legacy. But with no clear leader of his own party, it remains to be seen if the Democrats will follow Blair's lead. Third-way advocates in the US need to remember that remaking a party takes time. In the words of a Labour campaign poster, "the work goes on."

Kenneth S. Baer, the author of 'Reinventing Democrats: The Politics of Liberalism from Reagan to Clinton' (University Press of Kansas), was a senior speechwriter for Vice President Gore.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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