'Radical' Blair

Is this really the new Britain?

* A Labour government is reelected more on issues of concern to everyone than along class lines.

* The prospect of transferring more sovereignty to the European Union is hardly an election issue.

* More eligible voters don't vote at all than vote for the winning party.

No wonder Prime Minister Tony Blair seemed subdued by his big reelection victory last week. The mixed messages of a middling mandate for his next term are boggling.

Is Labour, once a socialist beacon for the working class, now decidedly middle-class? Might the British soon exchange the pound for the euro? And, with the lowest voter turnout since World War I, are people contented with government - or fed up?

The answers border on the mundane. Mr. Blair has shown, since his election in 1997, that Labour knows how to manage the economy. His victory was assumed, and many people (40 percent) just didn't bother to vote.

And the British trust Blair more than the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats to reverse a deterioration of basic public services like schools, trains, police, and hospitals. Ideology or past political tags matter less.

To fix those public services, Blair promises "radical" action. For "new" Labour, radical does not mean falling back on more government spending. Instead, he plans to lure private firms to do the work. That won't be easy for a party whose political core includes public employee unions. But he should stand up to them.

Blair should not misread the election results for the Conservatives. Just because their anti-euro slogan didn't catapult them to power does not mean they are moving faster toward a referendum on dropping the pound.

He has done well to restructure the UK, such as granting Scotland a parliament and nudging Northern Ireland toward peace. But until the critical domestic problems are solved, aligning Britain more closely with Europe - and distancing itself from the US - should not be rushed.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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