Iraq Clouds Blair Victory

LONDON – The invasion of Iraq rebounded a little on the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair to dent his majority as he returned to a third term as prime minister.

But it was not serious damage. Iraq did not prevent Blair from returning with a comfortable enough majority, and this is the first time in its history that a Labour government has been reelected for a third successive term.

Nonetheless, Iraq was still an issue, and it came home to Blair in his own constituency Sedgefield. The incumbent prime minister was challenged by an independent candidate Reg Keys, whose son was killed during the Iraq war.

Blair got 24,421 votes, and Keys 4,252. That means that for every six votes Blair got, Keys got at least one. Compared to the last general election in 2001, the votes for Blair dropped by about six percent. A member of the Blair campaign team Derek Cattel had quit midway through the campaign to support Keys.

"I know Iraq has been a divisive issue," Blair said as he was announced winner. "I hope we can unite again and look to the future, there and here." The remark seemed an indication that despite the opposition over Iraq he ran into, he intended to stay the controversial course.

Keys came up to the stage in Sedgefield to explain why he had contested. "I would have grieved and not campaigned if that war had been fought under international law," he said. "I would have grieved and not campaigned if weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq."

Keys added: "I am hoping in my heart that one day the prime minister will be able to say sorry."

If Keys was a constant reminder of Iraq to Blair through his election campaign in his constituency, he faces far more formidable opposition in parliament through George Galloway, who beat the Labour candidate in the Bethnal Green constituency in London.

For Galloway, who was expelled from the Labour Party for what the party described as his support for Saddam Hussein, Iraq was the key issue. He got much support through his campaign from the very large number of Muslim voters in the constituency.

Galloway is certain to confront Blair through his third term over Iraq, and Galloway is nothing if not strident, as he showed in his victory speech.

"Mr. Blair, this is for Iraq, and all your other defeats your Labour Party has suffered this day is [sic] for Iraq. All the people you have killed, and all the lies that you’ve told have come back to haunt you. The best thing you can do is to resign."

The only political party that had opposed the invasion of Iraq, the Liberal Democrats, saw their votes go up 3.9 percent from 22.6 percent in 2001. The percentage of Labour votes dropped 5.8 percent to 36.4 percent. The Conservatives, who firmly backed the invasion of Iraq, got 33.1 percent of the vote, a small gain of 0.6 percent over 2001.

The Liberal Democrat gain did not, however, translate into a proportionate rise in the number of members of parliament. In Britain’s first-past-the-post system in which the winner is the one with the plurality of votes, votes won are often not reflected in seats gained.

With 619 of 646 seats declared, Labour had 353, losing 47 in relation to the last parliament. The Conservative Party had 195, a gain of 33, and the Liberal Democrats had 59, a gain of 11 seats.

The significance of Iraq surfaced through the election results. During the campaign, it was one among several issues that came up and subsided. The Liberal Democrats claimed they had got it right on Iraq, and the Conservatives attacked Blair over what they called lies over the invasion. But there was little indication how far people were going to think about the invasion when they voted.

Labour is believed to have lost many votes and seats in constituencies with a high Muslim population – such as Bethnal Green – and in constituencies with a high number of students. Both these groups were at the forefront of the anti-Iraq-war protests.

Blair said that his new government will take on board the verdict of the people, reflected in some loss of support for his party. But that is not expected to lead to any sudden or significant change in his Iraq policy.

Read more by Sanjay Suri