Hasan Suroor

Whatever happened to the brave new world promised by New Labour in 1997?

TODAY, TONY Blair completes ten years in office becoming the longest-serving Labour Prime Minister in living memory. This should have been an occasion for the party and Mr. Blair to celebrate. Instead, the mood is one of doom and gloom with a tense Downing Street, and an even more tense Labour apparatchik, having nightmares ahead of Thursday's crucial elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, and hundreds of local councils across England.

Pollsters are predicting a Labour rout with its share of the vote expected to plunge to its lowest since the dark 1980s when, under Michael Foot, it virtually disappeared from the political radar. It took the party 17 years, a brand new leader, a new identity, and a repudiation of all that `old' Labour represented to stage a comeback. Is history going to repeat itself? Is the Labour Party facing a meltdown again? Whatever happened to the brave new world promised by New Labour in 1997? These are the questions being asked on the eve of the May 3 elections, and Mr. Blair's imminent retirement.

But it was not always supposed to be like this. Mr. Blair and his fellow architects of New Labour had vowed never to let the party return to what they derisively referred to as the "Michael Foot era." Here was a new generation of `dynamic' and `pragmatic' Labourities who appeared genuinely keen to give the party and the country a new direction. The party's emphatic victory in the 1997elections was hailed as a new dawn in British politics.

Ten years later, that dawn has turned depressingly grey. And, according to pre-poll trends, it looks like becoming even gloomier when election results are announced on Thursday. It has already been dubbed `black Thursday' for Mr. Blair and his putative successor Gordon Brown, the dour Chancellor of the Exchequer. Judging by the opinion polls, the party is set to lose power in Scotland with the resurgent Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) expected to form the next government. This will be a personal humiliation for Mr. Brown, Scotland's most famous and influential Labour figure, at a time when he is preparing to take over the reins of the country.

Labour is also predicted to lose control over several hundred local councils in England, and in Wales, it is struggling to retain its hold. Nationwide, the party's standing is so poor that, according to at least one major survey, if elections were to be held tomorrow the once-hated Tories would be in power again. Labour, on the other hand, would be reduced to a rump barely managing 200-odd seats in a House of more than 600 members.

So, is it all Mr. Blair's fault? Is he solely responsible for the party's embarrassing decline?

While it has become fashionable to heap the entire blame on him alone, a clutch of recent polls on individual ratings of Labour leaders tell a different story, though for obvious reasons it doesn't get the same play in the media and that includes left-wing publications as do negative stories about a lame-duck Prime Minister waiting for the removal men. And the story is that despite his poor image dented by a series of domestic scandals, foreign policy blunders such as over Iraq and his perceived arrogance Mr. Blair is still the only Labour leader with enough charisma to win over voters on a good day. If there is any one Labour figure whom the rising Tory leader David Cameron really fears it is Mr. Blair.

Strange though it might sound, head-to-head the down-and-out Mr. Blair's personal ratings are better than Mr. Brown's. Even though he is projected as an electoral liability for his party, when people are asked who is better placed to head off a Cameron-led Tory challenge more people (some 45 per cent, according to one survey) name Mr. Blair rather than Mr. Brown. Against a youthful Mr. Cameron, Mr. Brown is seen as too "dull" and "uninspiring." Mr. Brown's own colleagues have not helped matters by portraying him as someone who is aloof, lacks a sense of humour, and is not a team leader.

Blair loyalists may draw comfort from all this but, unfortunately, the party has fallen out of love with him. And it is not just the Brownites who are impatient to see his back; even one-time Blair-ites are desperate for a leadership change. Not content with having forced him to announce premature retirement the party is now pressing him to name a date when he intends to leave. Over the past week, there has been a wave of media reports giving different dates (all coinciding with a significant event such as May 1, the tenth anniversary of Mr. Blair's prime ministership; May 3, the election day; and May 9, the day after restoration of popular rule in Northern Ireland) on which he is "expected" to make a pre-resignation statement. Clearly, these are intended to bounce him into committing himself. Which just shows the degree of impatience at the highest level of the party to be rid of their once dynamic leader.

It is just a matter of time for Mr. Blair's long good-bye to come to an end finally, but the bigger question, especially in the wake of the looming "bloody Thursday," remains: what does the future hold for New Labour? And is Mr. Brown the right man to revive it?