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Europe: Labor Wins Landslide In British Elections

London, 2 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Britain's opposition Labor Party has won a landslide victory in yesterday's general elections, inflicting the worst defeat on the ruling Conservative Party of Prime Minister John Major this century.

British voters routed the Conservatives in hundreds of constituencies across the country, returning Labor to power for the first time in 18 years.

The Conservatives were stunned by the scale of their losses. David Mellor, a former Conservative Cabinet minister who lost his own parliamentary seat, told reporters: "A tidal wave has burst over the Conservative Party tonight."

Opinion polls had predicted a large Labor victory but, in the event, the scale of the triumph was far bigger than anticipated.

Six Cabinet ministers lost their seats, many Conservative constituencies voted Labor for the first time, and the Conservatives were wiped out in Scotland. For the first time since 1832, the party will have no parliamentary member in Scotland.

Labor leader Tony Blair will have a very large majority in the 659-seat House of Commons. With almost all the votes counted, the BBC predicted that Labor will have an absolute majority of 185 seats. Blair declared at a victory rally: "A new dawn has broken, has it not? And it's wonderful."

John Major, who has led the Conservatives for the past six years, telephoned Blair to concede defeat and offer his congratulations. Blair, 43, a charismatic Oxford-trained lawyer, will be the youngest British Prime minister for almost 200 years.

In televised remarks, Major said: "We have been comprehensively beaten. We will have to reflect on what the electorate told us."

The ballot showed that voters are weary with the Conservatives after their 18 years of unbroken power, and have been dismayed by a seemingly endless series of financial and sexual scandals. Voters also rejected the Conservatives because its legislators are deeply divided over Britain's relationship with its EU partners, and the imminent decision on whether to join a single European currency.

One-third of Conservative legislators defied Major's "wait-and-see policy" on Europe and declared their opposition to a federal Europe or joining the Euro-currency. One analyst said: "The lesson of the vote is that divided parties lose general elections."

Britain's economy is booming, it is growing faster than other major European countries, and reported unemployment is lower than France, Germany and Italy, but this was not enough to save the Conservatives

Many voters opted for Labor because they feel it can be better trusted to run the national health system, to improve education in schools, and to help those who are unemployed or on low wages.

The national swing to Labor of 10.3 per cent was the biggest in any election since Clement Attlee's landslide Labor victory in 1945. Labor has also won the greatest parliamentary majority in its history -- and scored the largest gain of any party since 1935. The size of its majority is set to beat former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's best election success in 1983.

The Labor share of the vote was 47 percent compared with 30 percent for the Conservatives. The third-ranking opposition Liberal Democratic Party scored 16 percent, doubling the number of its parliamentary seats (to 41), in the best performance by liberals for decades.

On a night that saw the senior ranks of the Conservative Party decimated, senior Conservative Cabinet ministers who lost their seats included Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind; Defense Secretary Michael Portillo; and Treasury Secretary William Waldegrave.

It was a remarkable comeback for the Labor Party which has lost a record four straight elections since Margaret Thatcher swept to power in 1979, radically changing British politics, and beginning a period of unprecedented dominance by her right of center party.

For years many British voters regarded the Labor Party as unelectable because it was seen as wedded to socialist dogma, under the sway of trade union leaders, and harboring left-wing extremists.

However, three reforming leaders, Neil Kinnock, the late John Smith and now Blair, have shifted the party towards the center during the years of political opposition.

On becoming leader in 1994, Blair set out to make Labor a mainstream alternative to the Conservatives. He doubled the membership of the party, reducing its dependence on the financial backing of the unions, democratizing its internal procedures and rewriting its charter to get rid of language supporting the state ownership of industry.

Blair renamed the party, New Labor, and, to show that the change was more than cosmetic, abandoned the long-time party policy of using taxes to redistribute wealth, and pledging that everything that has been privatized by the Conservatives will stay privatized. Blair insists that the party will be "pro-entrepreneur and pro-business."

When Blair attended a triumphant election party in London in the early hours of this morning, he warned the party faithful that his large majority imposes a special responsibility to govern responsibly.

Blair has pledged a big constitutional shake-up in Britain -- including referenda on elected assemblies for Scotland and Wales, and the reform of the unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords.

He is also expected to engage Britain's European partners in a more constructive dialogue. As a first step, he has promised to sign up to the Social Charter, which guarantees workers' rights. The Conservatives were the only administration among the 15 EU countries to reject the charter, saying it would raise costs to employers.

However Blair said during the election campaign: "I will be tough in Europe. I will put Britain's interests first" -- a remark seen as evidence that Labor will have its own problems with the European Union.

One analyst said: "Economic and monetary union looks ever more a reality. But the Blair government will not be able ignore a public mood which sees each step on the road to European integration as a threat."

In his remarks, Major said the Conservatives will form a vigorous opposition to Labor. But with the leadership decapitated by the election defeats of heavyweight Cabinet leaders, and with their loss of authority in Scotland, the Conservatives are in poor shape to recover. Many Conservative legislators took their defeat in the same way as they fought the elections -- by sniping at each other over the issue of Europe.

There are strong signs that Major may now have no option but to stay on as party leader as least for awhile to give his party a chance to pull itself together. Major is widely seen as vacillating but decent, and the polls show that he is more popular than his divided party.

For many voters in the election--the turnout was a high 77 percent--the experience of a Labor government will be a novel one. Millions were not born when Labor last won an election in 1974. Many more were still children when Thatcher entered ten Downing Street in 1979, beginning the long era of Conservative rule.

But Labor was looking last night, not to the past, but to the future. Many of its supporters celebrated overnight in London's Picadilly Circus, where a big red-and-white illuminated sign flashed a message that some thought they might never see: "Labor victory."