The partnership that did real damage to Labour

The partnership that did real damage to Labour

    Forget the Blair-Brown squabble: Blair-Bush is the one that matters

With Michael Howard trying to squeeze every bit of political capital over Gordon Brown’s views of the PM’s approach to the truth punters should not forget the other of Tony Blair’s partnerships that has done far far more damage than the Tories ever can to Labour.

His decision to join George Bush in the Iraqi adventure has hurt the party dear and no amount of massaging the figures can gloss over this. Labour had enjoyed more than a decade (excluding the 2000 petrol crisis) of poll ratings above 40%, until the Iraq war. These are the annual averages of ICM’s poll ratings.

1995 49%
1996 47%
1997 52% (General Election 44.4%)
1998 48.9%
1999 48%
2000 49% (excluding petrol crisis surveys)
2001 46% (General Election 42%)
2002 42.5%
2003 38.75% (Iraq war launched. David Kelly death. Hutton Inquiry)
2004 36.9% (Butler Inquiry and report. No WMDs found)

Thus in 2001 Tony Blair was able to go into the election campaign with the confidence of having averaged 49% in the polls during the previous year. This time that poll share is down by almost a quarter and although there have been minor ups and downs it’s still a long way below where he was four years ago.

It’s one of those conventional pieces of wisdom that Governments recover in the run-up to an election. That certainly happened with the Tories but there’s no evidence that the same will apply to this Government – in fact the reverse would seem to be the case. Last time saw a 7% differential between the 2000 poll figures and what Labour got on the day. Could something like that repeat itself?

Polling methodologies have evolved during the decade, the General Election year averages are skewed a bit by the low Tory ratings in the months afterwards and, of course, parties that have been in power for some time start to see support moving away.

    But this does not disguise the macro-trend – Iraq with all its manifestations has cost Labour dear.

This month’s elections in Iraq might start to help Tony Blair “draw a line” under the whole litany of war issues and there’s no doubt now that the real issue is how to move forward from this point. But the electoral damage has been done. Will it continue to hurt or will people focus on other things?

There’s also the consolation for Tony Blair in both the Australian and US election results and in spite of everything it is hard to call the coming contest any other way than Labour. But Iraq has made it a much closer thing.

Mike Smithson

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