LONDON — After six weeks of campaigning, Britons on May 1 will vote on whether or not to extend the ruling Conservatives' 18-year tenure by another five years.
For Americans used to presidential campaigns that feel as though they go on for ever, 42 days is an ultratight schedule for deciding between a renewed mandate for the party that launched Thatcherism in 1979 and an opposition Labour Party that pledges to end some of the "Iron Lady's" most enduring policies.
In fact, says David Butler, a leading analyst who has covered general elections since the early 1960s, "a campaign of six weeks is a luxury by British standards. In the past, our voters have sometimes been given a mere three weeks to make up their minds about who will run the country," he says.
As well as squeezing the battle into a tight time-frame, British election laws make certain that contests for political power differ startlingly from their US counterparts in another key respect: Paid TV advertisements are strictly forbidden. Instead, all TV channels are required by law to give the main parties and their leaders carefully measured free time at peak viewing hours to state their cases.
Limits on how much money British parliamentary candidates are allowed to spend on their campaigns are calculated to stoke the envy of Americans who would like to put an end to profligate spending in the pursuit of political power. In each of the UK's 659 parliamentary constituencies, candidates are restricted to laying out a maximum of L9,000 ($15,300) on getting their message across to voters.
Instead of throwing lavish lunches and other political functions, most candidates hold small meetings in church halls and similar humble venues. They distribute cheaply printed leaflets called "election addresses," and spend many hours each day pounding constituency pavements in a door-to-door blitz on voters.
Spending limits on campaigning at the national level are more relaxed. Even so, the single-issue Referendum Party, which opposes a single European currency, is using a treasure chest of L18 million provided by its billionaire leader, Sir James Goldsmith.
For the first time in a British general election, voters throughout the UK have received video tapes in their mail boxes. The Referendum Party videos warn that a single currency would mean the end of British national sovereignty.
Although the Conservatives and Labour have millions to spend at the national level, the ban on TV advertising forces them to resort to other ways of putting their case before the public.
Britain's towns and cities have suddenly sprouted huge numbers of advertising billboards - some as high as 20 feet and as long as an average-sized house.
The Tory posters are hammering the theme that after 18 years of Conservative prosperity, Labour would "blow it." Labour strategists say they are delighted with the impact of their boards, which say simply: "Enough is enough."
The TV advertisement ban forces the main political parties to rely heavily on TV stations and newspapers reporting press conferences and campaign appearances. TV companies are proving happy to oblige.
On April 1, the British Broadcasting Corp. announced that it was extending its "flagship" 9 p.m. TV news program from 30 minutes to a full hour, to make room for campaign reports, candidate interviews, and political analysis.
In the final two weeks of campaigning, broadcasters plan to provide even more time by carrying live morning reports of the parties' daily news conferences. Unlike the US, radio plays a prominent part in the parties' attempts to bend the ears of voters.
Even when there is no election campaign, leading politicians regard BBC radio's "Today" program, which runs from 6:30 a.m. until 8:40 a.m., as a much-sought-after publicity vehicle. Until May 1, it will be listened to each day by up to 6 million people.
On April 2, Prime Minister John Major appeared live on "Today" and was grilled for 18 minutes by one of the program's two anchormen. The next day Labour leader Tony Blair received virtually identical treatment.
This is because election laws require all broadcasters to give the Conservative and Labour leaders equal time on the airwaves.
As Mr. Major and Mr. Blair appeared on "Today," officials in the two party headquarters, stop watches in hand, made sure the equal time requirement was met.