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Labor Party Heads Toward Victory in British Election

By William D. Montalbano
Los Angeles Times
LONDON

Promising a just and dynamic new Britain, political modernizer Tony Blair on Thursday led his restructured Labor Party toward an apparent landslide election victory of historic proportions.

Blair and his newly middle-of-the-road party seemed poised Friday to deal ruling Conservatives under Prime Minister John Major their worst defeat in more than a century.

From the instant the polls closed Thursday night, the question was not whether Labor had won, but by how much. The answer: by the bushel. One early-reporting Birmingham district fell to Labor for the first time in British history.

Voting went smoothly as the Irish Republican Army stayed off the phone after causing repeated major disruptions through telephoned bomb threats in recent weeks. There were some minor alarms in London and some major ones in Belfast, where police attributed them to Protestant terrorists.

Television network exit polls echoed what opinion samplers have been predicting for months. Labor was nearly 20 percent more popular than the Conservatives, according to the polls.

Blair, 43, whose victory would make him the youngest prime minister this century, has every prospect of leading Britain into the new millennium. He would have a mammoth majority in the House of Commons - far more votes than he would need to serve the full five-year term.

Michael Heseltine, the outgoing deputy prime minister, said that what is critical for the Conservatives in the aftermath is "to find a way to regroup and fight back." Most commentators expect a quick and nasty succession battle among Conservatives to replace Major as party leader.

The BBC projected 45 percent of the vote for Labor, 31 percent for the Conservatives, or Tories as they are called, and 17 percent for the third-party Liberal Democrats under Paddy Ashdown. In the last election in 1992, the Conservatives won 42 percent and 336 seats to Labor's 34 percent and 271 seats.

The publicly funded BBC projected a Labor majority of 150 to 171 seats this time around. The commercially funded independent ITV network projected a 159-seat Labor majority, and the satellite TV channel Sky News estimated 150.

Labor went into the election needing a 4.5 percent vote swing to win the parliamentary majority that is essential to govern the world's oldest democracy. As returns mounted, it seemed as if a swing to Labor would at least double that.

When a constituency in northern Sunderland, the first to declare, was won by the Labor candidate with 27,174 votes to the Conservative's 4,606, jubilant Laborites sensed it was their game.

Labor icon Neil Kinnock, defeated by Major five years ago, called the result "sensational We're in for a spectacular evening."

"If there had been more focus on the economy and less on sleaze we might have done better. Now we must compose ourselves, lose with dignity," said Kenneth Clarke, the departing Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Turnout was encouraged by a spectacular spring day when cautions against the IRA were replaced by warnings against overexposure to the sun. By midafternoon on the hottest day of the year, election-day London had temperatures in the mid-70s under a cloudless sky.

Labor's last victory came in 1974, when Blair was a shaggy-haired, rock-music-singing law student at college. Not since Lord Liverpool, who was 42 when he took office in 1812, has Britain had a leader as young as Blair. Major was 47 when he became prime minister in 1990.

Thursday's election was presidential in the sense that it was simplified in saturation coverage to a showdown between Major and Blair. But in fact the two never faced off on any ballot.

Each appeared only on the ballots in the constituencies they represent in Parliament - Blair in Sedgefield near the Scottish border, Major in Huntingdon an hour north of London. Both appeared to win handily.

Another American-like feature of the campaign was the absence of visceral differences between the two parties. That was a big change for a country where over the decades Tories vs. Labor have been Us vs. Them, Right vs. Left shootouts.

And there was plenty of mudslinging this time, but overall the atmosphere journeyed down the middle of the political road. The six-week campaign was long by British standards.