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A Turning Point In British Politics

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown decided last Saturday not to call for a general election this fall. Up until the Labor Party's annual conference in late September, polls had shown Brown's party far ahead of the Conservatives, led by David Cameron. It appeared that in a general election Labor would boost its current majority. But opinion seems to have turned around virtually overnight during the Conservative Party's annual conference that followed.

In two polls taken before September 28 (in which the results were similar to polls taken all summer), Labor led Conservatives 39 to 34 percent, with 15 percent for the Liberal Democrats. This website translates that to a 373-to-235 margin for Labor, with only 13 seats for the Lib Dems (after the May 2005 general election Labor led 346 to 209, with 66 for the Lib Dems).

But in three polls taken October 2-7, the result was a 38 to 38 percent tie, with 14 percent for the Lib Dems. That would translate into a 346-239-6 Labor margin; still a majority, but not a big one. There are about 650 seats in all, and in Northern Ireland none of the British parties field candidates. Regional minor parties also win some seats.

In addition, a News of the World poll of 83 marginal seats showed Conservatives with a lead of 44 to 38 percent. This suggested that Labor would fail to win an absolute majority and would have to govern with the support of the Lib Dems and/or the minor parties. Evidently this persuaded Brown not to risk a minority government, as this pungent commentary from the Wall Street Journal suggests.

Tentative conclusions: Conservative leader Cameron's strategy of going after the votes of affluent cultural liberals seemed to be a loser over the summer. But the current results suggest that it has been highly successful, robbing the Lib Dems of the raft of seats they have been winning in the southwest, from the affluent southwest London suburbs to the Celtic fringe of Cornwall. In addition, Cameron made headlines at the conference by calling for the elimination of the estate tax for all but the highest-value estates. Previously, Cameron and his shadow Chancellor George Osborne have bridled at promising tax cuts. The estate-tax cut, I suspect, is especially popular in that part of England south of Cambridge and east of Oxford, where the surging private-sector economy of London has produced huge housing prices; presumably homeowners want to pass along that wealth to their heirs rather than have it confiscated by the state.

Economically, Britain is two nations: The half of the nation I have described above has a booming private-sector economy and surging wealth accumulation; the England north and west of it, plus Scotland and Northern Ireland, are heavily dependent on the public sector and have only modest housing values. The electoral success of Tony Blair's (and Gordon Brown's) New Labor project has been to build on near-total support in this public-sector Britain (except for Northern Ireland, where sectarian voting prevails), with major gains in private-sector England. Cameron's trendy environmentalism, plus his stand against the estate tax, threatens to make this private-sector England as heavily Conservative as it was in the years of Margaret Thatcher. A map (you can construct it by punching in 38 percent each for Labor and Conservatives and 14 percent for Lib Dems) shows this quite graphically.

By Michael Barone