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Labor on verge of landslide (yawn) -- but why?

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 7, 2001

When British voters go to the polls today, it will mark the end of what paradoxically has been one of the most important -- and lackluster -- campaigns in years.

Important, in that the winning party likely will determine whether Britain scraps the pound and joins 12 other European nations in adopting the euro. Depending on one's point of view, a single Europe-wide currency either makes terrific sense or is a dangerous step toward ending Britain's control over its own affairs.

But the campaign has also been a big yawner, given the huge lead that Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party enjoys in the polls. One British columnist even rapped his colleagues for giving so much coverage to the Conservatives when they have absolutely no chance of winning power.

That Blair and his "New Labor" team will repeat their 1997 landslide is more than a little amazing to people both at home and abroad. While Labor deserves much credit for Britain's vibrant economy, the fourth-largest in the world, the country no longer seems the ultrahip "Cool Britannia" that Blair touted just four years ago.

Even the timing of the election reflects the country's current state of distress. Blair originally set the voting for May. But he had to postpone it while his government grappled -- belatedly and ineptly, critics say -- with an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease that has forced the slaughter of 3-million sheep and cows and devastated the country's rural tourism industry.

No sooner had the disease appeared in check than Stern, a leading German magazine, slammed Britain with a ferocity that normally would elicit angry, defensive replies. But many Britons found themselves agreeing with Stern's assessment that their country is "in deep crisis," rife with racism, poverty and incompetence.

Last week, a consultant to the National Health Service made headlines when he said standards had slipped so much he wouldn't entrust the NHS with his own family's care. On the campaign trail, Blair has been confronted by the sick and dying who have had wait months for treatment. Delays in routine surgery are so great that Britons are going as far away as South Africa for hip replacements and other operations.

Teachers and parents complain that the education system is underfunded and elitist; commuters bemoan a rail service plagued by constant breakdowns. Recent riots in Oldham, a depressed town near Manchester, underscored the tensions between whites and Britain's growing number of darker-skinned immigrants.

The Blair government, which pledged an end to "Tory sleaze," has also had its share of scandals. One of Blair's closest confidants had to resign from two top government jobs because of ethical lapses. Another Cabinet member took an extended leave in the wake of allegations he had accepted illegal payments from rich Asians.

And looming as a symbol of Labor ineptitude is the Millennium Dome, a $1.5-billion white elephant that was supposed to showcase "the best of Britain." Widely panned for its boring exhibits and remote location, the dome drew far fewer visitors than expected and now sits empty in Greenwich waiting for a buyer.

Still, the Labor government has not been without its successes, especially in foreign policy. Blair himself spent long hours helping engineer the 1998 Northern Ireland peace agreement and was a strong advocate for NATO military intervention in Kosovo.

Blair, 48, also leads the not-so-forceful charge to adopt the euro, which will go into circulation Jan. 1 in France, Germany and 10 other countries. The prime minister says Britain will not dump the pound until "the time is right," but like many British business leaders he thinks the nation's economic health and competitiveness depend on eventually joining the euro zone.

Until recently, the euro was the issue that most sharply divided Labor from the Conservative Party, headed by William Hague. Hague, 40, argues that adopting the euro would destroy British sovereignty and cast the country's fate to foreign bureaucrats and bankers.

Although he has a brilliant mind and an orator's tongue, the bald-headed Hague is an untelegenic sort who has been described as looking like "a fetus in a suit." His stiff campaigning style and cry of "Save the Pound!" have failed to stir average Britons, who are far more interested in schools, transportation and health care.

In the waning days of the campaign, Hague has slightly narrowed the gap in opinion polls by shifting his focus to populist issues. However, a female Conservative leader charged this week that the party already had lost the crucial women's vote.

(Many commentators lament that neither party has done much to woo female voters.)

Come Friday, Britain assuredly will still have a Labor government, despite widespread bafflement over "how a prime minister presiding over this sorry mess of a country" continues to do so well in the polls, as columnist A.N. Wilson put it.

"The answer," he quickly continued in the Sunday Telegraph, "is that the majority of Britons are so skeptical about the possibility of efficiency that they make their own arrangements for anything that matters to them deeply," be it going to a private doctor if they are really sick or hiring a cab to get to the theater on time.

Said Wilson: "It is in fact our cynical assumption that nothing works and our willingness to make our own arrangements that keeps the incompetents in office."

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