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Blair's Labor Party Shaken in British Elections - 2004-07-16

The Labor Party of British Prime Minister Tony Blair has lost one seat and nearly lost another in elections to fill two vacancies in parliament. A key factor was a large turnout of Muslim voters opposed to Britain's involvement in the Iraq war.

The election results have revealed a strong anti-war sentiment among voters in the English heartland cities of Birmingham and Leicester, which both have large Muslim communities.

The anti-war Liberal Democrat candidate, Parmjit Singh Gill, easily defeated his Labor Party rival in Leicester.

In his victory speech, Mr. Gill said the voters had sent a message to Prime Minister Tony Blair about his support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

"The justification, which Tony Blair gave for backing George Bush, was wrong. The people of Leicester South have spoken for the people of Britain. Their message is that the prime minister has abused and lost their trust," he said.

In the other election, in Birmingham, the Labor candidate edged out his Liberal Democrat opponent by just 460 votes. The anti-war vote was split in Birmingham between the Liberal Democrat and a group called the Respect Coalition.

Muslims constituted about one-fifth of the voters in both elections. British Muslim voters have traditionally supported Labor, but the Muslim community strongly opposes Britain's involvement in Iraq.

One of Prime Minister Blair's key loyalists, Health Secretary John Reid, predicts Iraq will be less of an issue before the next general election is held in about a year.

"We have to listen carefully to what the electorate are saying. Certainly, in some cases, they were saying they didn't like what had happened in the past on Iraq,? Mr. Reid said. ?But as events move forward in Iraq, and the Iraqis themselves get further control of their own affairs, the picture is rosier than some of the headlines this morning would indicate."

Political analysts say the big loser Friday was the Conservative Party, which finished third in both races, even though it is the second strongest party in Parliament after Labor. Like Labor, the Conservatives supported the Iraq invasion, leaving anti-war voters with no alternative but the third parties.

University of Essex government Professor Tony King, who is an expert on Britain's electoral history, told British television the Conservative Party is in deep trouble.

"This is awful,? he said. ?The Conservatives, in fact, haven't finished second in any by-election in this Parliament. This is a part of the world in which the Tories used to do well. They used to win seats. They used to finish second to Labor invariably. It's a bad part of the world for the Liberal Democrats. And here are the Tories finishing plumb third, when the government is deeply unpopular."

Mr. King says history shows that a British governing party can lose by-elections and still win the next general election. However, he says, there has never been an instance of the main opposition party winning no by-elections at all, and then going on to win the next general election.