Memo to Al Gore: Beware of Apathy

LONDON–It is by no means certain that the humiliation inflicted on Tony Blair and his party by English voters in local elections means they will reject “New Labor” next time.

Although the Conservative Party exceeded its own expectations in what amounted to a midterm referendum on May 4, the great decent majority still regards the Tories and their unprepossessing chief, a neo-skinhead named William Hague, as unfit for national leadership.

What ought to concern Mr. Blair, however, is not that his normally loyal voting base will suddenly take leave of its senses to back Mr. Hague. He should be worried instead that it may do next year what so many once-reliable Labor voters did just the other day: reject his candidates in favor of a third-party alternative, or simply stay home.

And if Vice President Al Gore pays any attention to the news from overseas, then what should worry him–a politician with similar centrist leanings but far less agility than the British Prime Minister–is that apathetic or alienated Democrats will behave the same way come November. It is entirely possible, and the results would put an end to Mr. Gore’s dream of succeeding the man who made him Vice President.

Analogies between American and British politics may seem wildly farfetched and often are; yet the similarities are more compelling now than ever before.

The celebrated ideological nexus of New Labor and the Clintonian Democrats is real. Messrs. Clinton and Blair are both modernizing “reformers” who have broadened the ideological appeal of their parties, frequently despite furious objections from major constituency groups such as trade unions. Their electoral challenge has been to attract swing or independent voters without forfeiting traditional supporters.

Working in Mr. Blair’s favor, of course, is that he faces no immediate contest for Parliament and can choose the date for his next electoral test. Meanwhile, however, the Prime Minister’s still-formidable popularity is beginning to suffer, both from the high expectations created by Labor’s massive 1997 victory and from his own subsequent mistakes in style and substance.

For the purposes of this exercise in comparative politics, the details of those errors matter less than their disturbing result. Every chart and table published in the London press to explain the startling May 4 returns showed declining participation overall, especially by Labor voters.

In London, where the citizenry had the historic opportunity to select the city’s first directly elected Mayor, they abstained in historically high numbers. Two-thirds of the eligible London electorate didn’t vote. The apparent motivation of those few who did was their disgust with Mr. Blair’s transparent scheming to rig the outcome.

Londoners’ present attitude toward “Tony” may be gauged by their election of “Red Ken” Livingstone, a somewhat dubious, grandstanding and widely detested member of Parliament. Having been expelled from the Labor Party by Mr. Blair’s lieutenants, Mr. Livingstone campaigned as an “independent” and won a smashing protest victory that everyone but he may soon regret. As an astute analyst in The Observe r of London put it, the new Mayor of London won as the “Sod Them” candidate.

Indeed, so thorough was London’s rejection of Mr. Blair’s perceived meddling that the share of the metropolitan vote won by Labor dropped from 49 percent (in 1997) to 13 percent. As a share of the total eligible electorate, that latter number declines still further to four percent.

The London situation was uniquely bizarre but the rebuke to New Labor was nationwide. Its vote fell from nearly 45 percent in a three-way contest in 1997 to about 30 percent, while the Tories rose from 28 percent to 38 percent. The only consolation for Mr. Blair came in the by-election for one Commons seat in a supposedly safe Tory constituency. But even there it was the Liberal Democrat candidate who won while Labor polled dead last.

Party loyalty is disappearing, tactical voting is on the rise and disillusionment with incumbents poses a real threat to New Labor unless the party base can be revitalized.

Is any of this relevant to our own coming elections?

While the circumstances and candidates are very different, the underlying malaise is not. The American people are even more apathetic and bored than the British. Hearing little or nothing of interest from either major party, they too may be enticed by third-party or independent candidates, no matter how disreputable. Or they may simply forfeit their democratic birthright.

The candidate most likely to benefit from a precipitous drop in participation will be George W. Bush, whose Republican and conservative supporters probably require little extra motivation to cast their ballots against Mr. Clinton’s chosen successor.

Most in need of an inspired electorate, and least prepared to deliver that inspiration so far, is Al Gore.

Memo to Al Gore: Beware of Apathy