Just the best of a bad bunch?

January 7, 2005

What makes a hero? Dying used to be a prerequisite - but these days a good right foot is enough. Over five pages, we ask who makes the grade

With politicians held in low regard, Paul Whiteley asks if Blair can stay on top

When historians come to write the account of Tony Blair's leadership, what are they likely to conclude? Did he inspire the nation or appal it? This complex question is difficult to answer, but an attempt can be made by looking at public opinion polls. Monthly approval ratings of prime ministers go back many years. These offer a contemporary and fairly concrete measure of a prime minister's success or failure.

If we compare the approval ratings for Margaret Thatcher during her period of office from 1979 to 1990 with Blair's approval ratings from 1997 to the present, we can see that both started their terms of office with different popularity profiles. Blair was more than twice as popular as Thatcher when he moved to Downing Street, but the popularity of both declined from the start. Thatcher's ratings recovered dramatically some two and a half years into her first Parliament, largely as a result of the Falklands War. No such recovery has been apparent for Blair, apart from a relatively brief surge in his popularity at the time of the 2001 election.

Moreover, the Iraq War has brought nothing but trouble. Thatcher received a boost from the 1987 election victory but, unlike Blair, the effects were felt for the best part of two years. The basic story of the Thatcher era is one of prime ministerial popularity following the ups and downs of a roller-coaster ride that ends up not far from where it began. The story of the Blair years is one of a huge initial popularity endowment being more or less continuously dissipated.

Since 1945, all prime ministers have experienced a loss of approval during their terms of office, apart from Edward Heath and Alec Douglas-Home, both of whom started with low approval ratings that stayed low. The average loss of approval over this period was 8 per cent. More generally, Paldam's Law, named after the Danish political economist who devised it, states that the typical democratic government will lose an average 2.5 per cent of its vote during a normal period of incumbency. In other words, there is a cost to ruling in all democratic societies. Why does this happen? One explanation, devised in the Seventies, is that political leadership inevitably means rewarding some groups at the expense of others. Opposition leaders exploit this by making promises to voters, and as the opposition gains backing, support for the incumbents wanes.

It appears that for Britain, the costs of governing are growing. The average loss of approval for the past three prime ministers, including Blair, is 28 per cent. Blair contributes the lion's share to this figure, although both Thatcher and John Major were well above the postwar average in approval losses. This suggests that other factors are at work.

One explanation is rooted in changes in civil society, notably the decline in political parties and the prestige of Parliament. Growing numbers of electors feel no allegiance to any party. Similarly, people trust the non-elected institutions of the state such as the courts much more than the elected institutions. These factors are fuelling a decline in electoral turnout and in political authority. As parties slide, interest-group politics gain, and this tends to raise the costs of government. Unlike parties, interest groups aim to obtain benefits for the people they represent while transferring the costs to the rest of society. Parties cannot be so narrowly focused if they aspire to win a majority of voters because they have to detail how they will fund spending plans. Thus parties seek to aggregate interests in a way that interest groups do not, which makes them willing to share and limit costs. In a world of powerful interest groups and weak parties, political leaders can be overloaded with demands they have no authority to meet.

So how do political leaders in general, and Blair in particular, cope with these developments? Blair, like Thatcher, has sought to regain the power and authority that political parties and Parliament have lost by trying to centralise decision-making into the core executive with command-and-control methods. Part of this strategy involves running a continuous election campaign. The attempt is to recapture lost authority by trying to deliver better policies or by convincing voters that the Government is doing so.

Unfortunately, these strategies tend to raise the cost of governing in the long run because command-and-control policies are not very effective.

Similarly, the continuous campaign tends to produce a distrustful and alienated electorate in the long run, one quick to desert the Government when things go wrong. These developments also tend to drive out debate in decision-making, which eventually leads to serious political mistakes, such as the poll tax and the invasion of Iraq.

As a result, political leadership in Britain is becoming more difficult, and Blair is aware of this problem. His "Big Conversation" scheme was designed to draw public attention away from the Iraq War and on to domestic politics. It has not had much success. The drive to hold elections in Iraq this month results from the search for an exit strategy on both sides of the Atlantic. In this case, US imperatives may help Blair because the hope is that successful elections will allow the Government to declare "victory" in preparation for a withdrawal. This will allow Blair to claim credit for bringing democracy to Iraq in the UK election campaign. Another important development is Britain's hosting of the Group of Eight summit next summer in Scotland. This will be trailed during the election campaign, giving the Prime Minister an opportunity to relaunch himself on the world stage and remind voters that he is a world leader.

Blair's best card at the moment is the fact that few voters think much of Tory leader Michael Howard. Only 20 per cent of respondents thought that the leader of the Opposition would make the best prime minister in a poll for the British Election Study last October. Ultimately, the choice of political leadership in Britain is based on a comparison of what is on offer rather than a horse race between the incumbent and an ideal leader.

This fact might just save Blair's premiership.

Paul Whiteley is professor of government at Essex University and co-director of the British Election Study.

Heidi Mirza, professor of racial equality studies, Middlesex University

"In terms of academic inspiration, it has been a slow process of absorbing things from many different areas; in terms of personal inspiration, it has been a small group of friends who have supported me. They aren't big names or very important people, but they have understood what it is to be marginal.

"I cannot say 'Professor so-and-so took me under their wing'. The opposite has happened. Various people haven't been that nice at the more powerful end of things. I can't say anyone in academia is a mentor. It's much too cut-throat.

"People who have been very close to me have all been women in a similar class or ethnic or gendered position. I can go and have a moan and they say: 'Have you thought about this? Have you thought about that?' One of my mentors is one of my PhD students who has become very close and understands my situation.

"The determination of women such as my mother inspires me. My mum is very focused and inspirational, and I expect from myself the same as she expects from herself.

"But I have got where I am not because of role models - it's down to sheer hard work.

"The idea of role models is problematic because it assumes that to do well you need to look up to someone. But if you do badly, is it because there are no role models? I don't think so. I think the reason we do well or not is because of opportunities."

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