Thursday's election will decide who will lead Great Britain. The campaign has been going on across the British isles for the last six weeks. Our report by special correspondent Simon Marks is from the English town of Tamworth.
JIM LEHRER: Now the election Thursday to decide who will lead Great Britain. The campaign has been going on across the British isles for the last six weeks. Our report by special correspondent Simon Marks is from the English town of Tamworth.
SIMON MARKS: If the opinion polls are right, Tony Blair will move into the British prime minister's residence at No. 10 Downing Street this Friday. At 43, he'll become Britain's youngest prime minister this century, and the Labour Party's victory will bring to an end 18 years of uninterrupted conservative rule, first by Margaret Thatcher, then by John Major. Tony Blair has transformed his party, even making it New Labour, to try and escape a reputation won in the 70's and maintained through the 80's for stubbornly pursuing socialist policies. Today, Labour is no longer committed to nationalizing industry, raising taxes, and government spending, and unilaterally scrapping Britain's nuclear arsenal. Instead, Tony Blair has based New Labour's campaign on a general appeal, with very few specifics.
TONY BLAIR, Labour Party Leader: I cannot believe myself that Britain under Mr. Major and the conservatives in 1997, it has reached the very best that Britain can be, the summit of our achievement has now been reached. I honestly believe this country can be better. And what we should be discussing is the ways that we can make it better.
SIMON MARKS: Tony Blair has tried to make his party more popular with Britain's growing middle class and less beholden to Labour's traditional union base, which has lost millions of members over the past two decades. In an appeal to the middle class he's even vowing not to raise government spending beyond current conservative limits.
TONY BLAIR: We are not in the business of pressing the rewind button, of reversing the reforms of the 80's.
PETER RIDDELL, The Times of London: The significance of Tony Blair is he has accepted that the landscape changed under Margaret Thatcher, and he's prepared to work within that new landscape. But to that extent she shouldn't complain if Tony Blair wins because a lot of the victories that she achieved aren't going to be reversed over the next few years.
SIMON MARKS: Prime Minister John Major has been campaign on his government's record of delivering the highest rates of economic growth and the lowest rates of unemployment in Europe. His simple message: Britain is booming; don't let the Labour Party wreck it.
PRIME MINISTER JOHN MAJOR, Great Britain: We have in this country an economy that nobody else in Europe can remotely match. We have prospects for the next generation that no other country in Europe can do anything other than envy at the present time. What is at risk at this general election is whether we continue with the policies that have produced this turnaround in our fortunes, or whether we go back to the politics of socialism that brought this country to its knees in the late 1970's.
SIMON MARKS: Under normal circumstances the Conservatives' economic record would be enough to win them a further term in government. But John Major's administration is bitterly divided over Britain's role in Europe. It's dogged by accusations of financial corruption and administrative mismanagement, as well as a string of sex scandals. Some analysts say the party is collapsing under the weight of nearly two decades of uninterrupted power.
BRENDAN O'LEARY, London School of Economics: If the Conservatives had performed well over the last five years, if they preserved their reputation for competence, and if they had not been deeply internally divided, and if they'd remained clean, I think they would have had a high prospect of being reelected. The fact is that they've failed on those dimensions, and that's why they're very, very likely to lose.
SIMON MARKS: One place where the Conservatives are likely to lose is the town of Tamworth, right in the heart of the British Midlands. Districts like Tamworth all over Britain are poised to give Tony Blair's New Labour the majority in parliament the party needs to form the country's next government. Voters in the 659 parliamentary districts of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, don't vote directly for Tony Blair or John Major. Instead, they choose a local parliamentary representative, and the queen then invites the party leader with the most members of parliament to become prime minister. Since the 1979 general election thrust Margaret Thatcher to power Tamworth has been a safe Conservative district. But last year in a special election after the death of a local member of parliament, Tamworth went Labour. Brian Jenkins became Tamworth's new parliamentary representative. The son of a coal miner, he's now on a door-to-door dash to secure his re-election. Jenkins denies that New Labour has sold out in a bid to get elected to power. He says the party simply had to adapt to Britain's new conditions.
BRIAN JENKINS, Member of Parliament, Labour: I don't think the core values have altered in some respects. How we get there altered, but I think the actual concept of looking after our young, giving them a first class start in education, looking after our elderly, looking after the weak and the sick of our society, being a more humane, caring, compassionate society, I think they've always been with us.
SIMON MARKS: The statistics show that Tamworth is enjoying Britain's prosperity. Unemployment here has plunged from 25 percent to 5 percent. Personal incomes have risen. More people own their homes and a second car. But all that isn't helping Lady Ann Lightbown, the widow of the former Conservative member of parliament and now the Conservative candidate here, herself. Her voters live in the wealthy rural areas on the outskirts of town, but elsewhere in Tamworth, Conservative support has collapsed and sensing defeat, despite Britain's economic recovery. Lady Ann says it's been a frustrating election campaign.
LADY ANN LIGHTBOWN, Conservative Party Candidate: You feel as though you want to, you know, really look into people's eyes and say, you know, what can I say to convince you? It seems as, you know, it's there all around us, but we can't see it. It's a strange phenomenon.
SIMON MARKS: A phenomenon of an economic recovery that many voters deny and a refusal to back John Major for a second full term.
MAN ON STREET: I feel sorry for the man. He's just not doing the job. It's as simple as that.
SIMON MARKS: Even though the economy is doing pretty well?
MAN ON STREET: I don't think the economy is doing well at all, to be honest with you. I'm paying more tax now, and I'm a real pensioner now, and of course, we're--we're--with no private pension, I'd be living on the bad land, and that's all due to Torries, isn't it?
SIMON MARKS: Even life-long Conservatives here are deserting their party's leader.
WOMAN ON STREET: Well, I don't think he's decisive enough.
SECOND WOMAN ON STREET: I think he's a good man. I think he's a fair man, or he's trying to be a fair man.
WOMAN ON STREET: And a very nice man, probably, but I don't think he's strong enough to be the leader.
SECOND WOMAN ON STREET: But I don't think there's anyone better in our party to do it. I don't think we've got that type of man in the party that we used to have.
PETER RIDDELL: It's very interesting. We had a poll in the Times last week which showed a quarter of the public believe that the government has built foundations to become a recovery but still think it's time for a change, and I think that all goes back to the sense the Torries don't look an electable party; that people don't want to keep changing policy, and Tony Blair for Labour isn't really offering a change of policy. What they want is a new team in charge.
SIMON MARKS: So representatives of the current team are preparing for defeat. Last weekend, Lady Ann Lightbown joined Conservative Party members in Tamworth for a cheese and wine party, but no one present expected to be celebrating this Friday morning. Meanwhile, Labour's Brian Jenkins was at a Tamworth social club, preparing for what he believes will be Labour's first national triumph since the Thatcher revolution began.
BRIAN JENKINS: That's what they're going to do, look after our children, look after our elderly, look after other people. That's what the Labour Party is about. That's why I want you to vote on Thursday, Labour--
SIMON MARKS: If Labour candidates and the party faithful are celebrating as the votes are counted by hand through the night across the United Kingdom on Thursday, the country will have a new party in power for the first time since 1979.