British voters go to the polls Thursday to elect a Prime Minister. Public opinion polls show current Prime Minister Tony Blair will easily win a third term, though he is far less popular with the British public than he was in the last two elections. Amy Katz takes a look at the why he is the likely victor, and the issues in the campaign.
Mr. Blair, the leader of Britain's center-left Labour Party, has been Prime Minister for eight years. He, like former U.S. President Bill Clinton, has taken his party from the left closer to positions in the political center. His main opponent, Michael Howard, the leader of the opposition Conservative or Tory Party has a problem because there is now little to differentiate between the Labour and Conservative Parties, says Joanna Spear, the Director of the U.S. Foreign Policy Institute at the Elliot School of International Affairs at George Washington University.
"One of the problems for the British voter, as they actually look at the two main parties, Labour and the Conservatives, there's not actually that much difference between policies," she said. "So they've been trying to differentiate themselves and the Conservatives have done it a bit by talking more about immigration, cracking down on immigration."
But Dr. Spear says Conservatives have failed to make this issue decisive because Labour also says immigration reform is needed. Many voters opposed Tony Blair's decision to join the U.S. in the war against Iraq. The Conservative Party supported it. That's where the third party in these elections stands to gain ground. The Liberal Democratic Party, led by Charles Kennedy, strongly opposed the war. They, along with many in the British voting public, say Prime Minister Blair lied about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, which have never been found, to justify British participation in the Iraq war.
Dr. Spear says the Liberal Democrats will gain some parliamentary seats because of this anti-war stance, which may force the victor, presumably Tony Blair, to form coalitions to get legislation passed. Much of that legislation, like the campaign, will primarily focus on domestic issues, such as education, the national health service and the economy.
Daniel Hamilton, the Director of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington says, "Most issues are domestic. The British economy has been doing relatively well, compared to most of Europe. As I say, I think there's a general consensus that Gordon Brown has steered the British economy well."
Gordon Brown is Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, and it is widely believed Tony Blair will step aside in his third term, to make way for Mr. Brown to lead the Labour Party.
Dr. Hamilton says, "This election is as much about Gordon Brown, in some ways, as it is about Tony Blair. He has, Gordon Brown has really had almost autonomous control over the British economy, which has recorded good success over the last number of years. So, it's a dual campaign, in terms of the Labour Party."
The international community will be watching this election, largely because of Britain's very close relationship with the U.S., says Dr. Spear. She says, "For the British it is a very special relationship. It enables them to play major role international diplomacy, and to quote Sir Douglas Hurd, a well known Conservative British politician, 'punch above our weight in the international system.'"
Daniel Hamilton says Britain is not the super power or empire it once was, but it is a very powerful European country, in part due to its relationship with the U.S.
"The best way you could have influence with a super power like America, is to be so close and aligned with their policies that when you're embracing the American President, you might actually be able to whisper a little advice in his ear and maybe that's how you get influence," says Daniel Hamilton.
Dr. Hamilton adds later this year, Britain will take over the chairmanships of both the European Union and the Group of Eight, the world's major industrial nations plus Russia. So, the new British Prime Minister will have added influence outside his own country.