Campaign for British Leader Turns Into 'Battle of Buses'

Blair's glad-handing may upstage Major's dignified stance

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The young woman with the pearl necklace and cut-glass accent at the offices of the Conservative Party was adamant: The vehicle being used by Prime Minister John Major to scour Britain for votes was a "campaign coach."

Over at Labour Party headquarters, located in a working-class area of the British capital, one of Tony Blair's helpers, clad in jeans and jumper, was more down to earth. The opposition leader, she said, was about to board his "battle bus."

The words used by the two aides to describe the Major and Blair mobile campaign platforms have their counterparts in the adversaries' vote-seeking styles.

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Major - grey-haired, bespectacled, looking every inch the bank manager he once was - seems to be striving hard to preserve his prime ministerial dignity and exude an aura of trustworthiness when he makes contact with voters.

As he walks carefully toward a pregnant woman outside a superstore at Croydon, near London, "Honest John," as admirers call him, begins to flash a smile, evidently anticipating a genial exchange of words.

When the woman tells him curtly that she "will definitely be voting Labour, regardless," Mr. Major responds "Oh really?" His smile quickly becomes a tight grin, which fades even faster, and he trudges on.

Of barn-storming and baby-kissing

Blair, on the stump, comes across very differently. He effects an extroverted, barn-storming image Americans would find familiar.

When the Labour bus arrives at a marginal constituency in central England, the opposition leader, his lawyer wife, Cheri, at his side, furiously waves an arm and bellows "Hello, Northampton!"

He then plunges into the crowd half-filling the city's 700-year-old marketplace, spots a woman wheeling a pram, shakes her hand, seizes the baby, and vigorously kisses it.

There is something confusing about the images the two leaders display as they proceed along the campaign trail. In fact, one of Blair's campaign advisers admits, glad-handing does not come easily to the Labour leader, who finds pressing the flesh "not entirely to his taste." To outward appearances, however, he is a more ebullient, confident campaigner than the prime minister.

This makes a comment from a Major campaign worker seem even more strange: "The prime minister is at his best in small groups and one-on-one meetings," the young helper remarks. "He likes talking quietly to people and hates formal occasions."

Substance or style?

How much impact the battle of the buses and the contrasting personalities of the rival leaders will have when ballots are cast in the general election on May 1 is an open question.

Peter Mandelson, Blair's campaign coordinator, who travels aboard the bus labeled "Into the Future," says it is "important for Labour's leader to meet as many voters as possible."

Over in the Conservative camp, a senior press aide is not so sure about the benefits of face-to-face electioneering by the man who has led Britain for the last seven years.

"He must mix with the voters, certainly, but this election will be won and lost on policies, not images," he says, adding: "Glitz is not as important as persuading people that the Tories are still capable of good government." That, of course, is exactly what Blair and other Labour campaigners are setting out to disprove.

At every campaign stop, the man who in three years has dragged Labour away from a commitment to old-fashioned socialism and turned it into a moderate, left-of-center party, hammers at "Tory tiredness" and Major's "dithering" style.

"After 18 years, the Tories are a spent force led by a failed prime minister," he tells the Northampton crowd.

In Croydon, Major's response is to claim that "so-called New Labour" is "still a creature of the trade unions" and that Blair is "inexperienced" and "not to be trusted."

The battle of the buses is part of an attempt by party leaders to dramatize the political conflict and persuade the media to cover their cross-country travels.

When they are on the road Major and Blair remain closely in touch with their respective headquarters.

The prime minister's "campaign coach," with the slogan "You can only be sure with the Conservatives" along its side, has a satellite dish on the roof for keeping in contact with London and foreign capitals. Blair's "battle bus," more modestly, has radio telephones and fax machines. Both are equipped with high-tech, fold-out metal platforms from which the leaders can address crowds.

Stepping up to the soapbox

But only Major keeps a traditional, low-tech, wooden soapbox on board.

In the closing stages of the 1992 general election, which the Conservatives won despite opinion-poll predictions of a Labour victory, Major resorted to addressing crowds from a battered soap box in streets and squares around the country.

A press aide explains: "This time the prime minister is keeping the box in reserve - in case he decides he needs it again."

Where They Stand

CONSERVATIVES

Education: Greater parental choice in types of school available; promise to raise standards through a national curriculum and regular testing of pupils.

Economy: Move toward 20 percent standard rate of income tax; abolish capital gains tax, and inheritance tax; keep inflation at 2.5 percent or below; double living standards over next 25 years.

Europe: Keep open option of joining single currency; work for a Europe in which individual nations remain sovereign; resist EU laws aimed at formalizing workers' rights.

Law and order: Establish register of pedophiles; introduce identity card scheme; extra 5,000 police officers in next three years; impose fines on parents of young offenders.

Health: Encourage people to take out long-term care insurance; increase spending on National Health Service by more than the rate of inflation.

Welfare: Require people to create private pension funds; focus existing state benefits on the genuinely needy.

Constitution: Preserve the union of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland; resist calls for a Scottish parliament; oppose calls for abolition of hereditary principle in House of Lords.

LABOUR

Education: Guarantee nursery places for all infants; cut class sizes to under 30; link all schools to information highway; limit growth of private school sector.

Economy: Introduce national minimum wage; impose a one-time tax on all public utilities privatized by the Conservative government to pay for national job-training scheme; reduce taxes on domestic fuel; hold inflation at 2.5 percent or under.

Europe: Britain to play more active role in shaping EU; accept EU rules on rights of workers; reduce Britain's right of veto in social and industrial policy.

Law and order: Fast track system for dealing with young offenders; tougher action against rowdy neighbors and truancy by school children; free vote in House of Commons on banning civilian handguns; compulsory testing and treatment of drug-using offenders.

Health: abandon privatization measures in National Health Service; allow physicians greater say in running hospitals; ban tobacco advertising.

Welfare: cut youth unemployment, using proceeds of windfall tax; reduce automatic state-paid benefits to teenagers; retain the basic state-paid pension, but encourage second-tier pensions.

Constitution: Legislate for more self-government for Scotland and Wales; remove hereditary peers from House of Lords; hold a referendum on electoral reform; pass Freedom of Information Act.

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