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U.K. Electorate Gives Labor Party, Blair Landslide Win

By T.R. Reid

British voters gave Prime Minister Tony Blair a resounding re-election victory Thursday, exit polls projected, handing Blair a powerful mandate for the “radical change” he has promised in the nation’s antique class structure and the crumbling public infrastructure.

Television network projections issued just after the polls closed indicated that Blair and his center-left Labor Party will take over 45 percent of the vote, a landslide by British standards, and slightly higher than the margin Labor won in the last national election four years ago.

The chief opposition, the Conservatives, were getting an anemic 30 percent or so, exit polls showed, a result that likely means the axe for the party’s embattled leader, William Hague.

Blair rode to victory and a solid majority in parliament on a tide of economic good news -- the lowest unemployment, inflation and mortgage rates in a generation -- and a fairly centrist first term in which he convinced a once-skeptical public that the Labor Party could be trusted with power. But he indicated during the campaign that he will move left from this point on. “No radical, reforming government has ever done it all in the first term,” he told the voters. “We will go much further.”

That shift should produce considerably higher spending on the nation’s decrepit schools, hospitals and transit terminals. Blair’s aides also say he will mount a frontal attack on lingering bastions of social privilege -- particularly on prestigious universities such as Oxford and Cambridge, where the admissions process is still heavily tilted toward elite private high schools.

Labor’s big victory is a clear affirmation of the center-left trend in European governments -- a trend that was interrupted briefly by Silvio Berlusconi’s narrow victory in Italy last month. When George W. Bush makes his first presidential visit to Europe next week, two-thirds of the 18 leaders he will meet will be leftists of one degree or another.

Still, the Labor win here should pose no problem for Bush. Blair has defined Britain as a “bridge nation” linking the European Union with the United States. Accordingly, he says it is “absolutely crucial” for him to have a good working relationship with the new U.S. president.

While other European leaders have openly disagreed with Bush on such issues as national missile defense, the Kyoto climate-change agreement and American use of the death penalty, Blair has kept a diplomatic silence on these issues -- doing so deliberately, his aides say, to keep the bridge between London and Washington in a good state of repair.

The liberal mood of the electorate was also reflected in a record-high vote for Britain’s third-largest party, the Liberal Democrats, who ran to the left of Blair on a platform calling for higher taxes and bigger government.

Blair’s performance during the campaign makes it hard to predict whether he will try to take Britain into the European single currency. The new euro will replace marks, liras, francs and other currencies in 12 European countries on Jan. 1. Currency traders around the world, assuming that Blair will lead Britain to adopt the euro, sent the British pound tumbling to its lowest level against the dollar in 15 years this week.