British Pols Mimic High-Gloss, Low-Blow of American Politics
LONDON — British politicians, facing their first general election in five years, have picked up a style of campaigning with all the trappings of a race for the White House.
Rival parties are copying such American techniques as boosting the media images of their leaders and the use of focus groups to gauge voter preferences.
Already there is a strong tinge of negative campaigning - an aspect of politics largely absent from British campaigns until now.
Last week, the ruling Conservative Party and opposition Labour Party promised to clear Britain's streets of beggars in a move mimicking those tried with some success in New York and other big American cities.
Prime Minister John Major has made the boldest attempt so far to extract maximum impact from techniques used successfully in American politics. On Jan. 7, he called the first of a series of presidential-style press conferences aimed at projecting himself as a trustworthy leader. The unprecedented exercise was held in a new media center at the Conservative Central Office in London.
In the past, British prime ministers have been at pains to project themselves as "first among equals," rather than solitary leaders in the presidential sense. Even Margaret Thatcher, who earned the sobriquet "the Iron Lady" while serving as prime minister from 1979 to 1990, strove not to appear too dominant in her campaigning.
Mr. Major's Labour challenger, Tony Blair, so far has been appearing as more of a team player than Major. But Mr. Blair is also under pressure to push himself forward to counter his opponent's methods.
Blair is said by advisers to have patterned his stance at the rostrum - and even his hair style - on President Clinton, whose victory over Bob Dole in the 1996 presidential contest was closely monitored by Labour strategists. The Blair hair is said to put off women voters if he wears it too long, so he has emerged with a new, closer-cropped look.
Labour is also pushing an image of itself far distant from its radical socialist origins. Taking a page out of the strategy book of the Democrats, who under Clinton sought the image of being "new Democrats," Blair is portraying his party as "New Labour," with strong middle-class appeal.
British political analyst Jon Hibbs, reporting on Major's bid to adopt a presidential-type campaign style, commented that it was "not so much what he said, but the way that he said it" that distinguished the occasion. Instead of appearing with senior party officials, or surrounding himself with a group of Cabinet ministers, Major stepped into the spotlight alone and fielded questions from more than 200 reporters.
As journalists waited for Major to appear, they were shown new campaign posters highly critical of the Labour Party.
A typical billboard shows an anxious-looking family, with the mother shedding a blood-colored tear, against the slogan "New Labour, New Failure." Others are on the themes "New Labour, New Taxes," "New Labour, New Price Rises," and "New Labour, New Job Losses."
The negative posters, condemned by Blair as "pathetic" and as "a symptom of a government that is bereft of ideas," are being placed at 3,000 sites around Britain.
Blair's advisers immediately ordered one of Labour's posters to be released. It asked how voters could trust a prime minister "who has [raised] taxes 24 times."
The projection of Major in "presidential" settings is the idea of Conservative Party chairman Brian Mawhinney, who is said by his officials to have studied the 1992 British general election campaign.
Major fooled the pundits by winning that contest after having taken a personal decision to, quite literally, grab a soapbox and climb onto it in a series of impromptu inner-city street appearances.
Mr. Mawhinney has adapted the idea to larger news conferences. He is said to be convinced that Major's "Honest John" image is his greatest asset in the Conservatives' bid to win another five-year term.
Blair's answer to his opponent's new campaign style has been to mix heavy criticism of the government's handling of the economy with the use of techniques picked up by a team of party officials who followed last year's Clinton campaign. These include the use of "focus groups" of voters whose reactions are sought to possible policy initiatives and party slogans.
This approach may explain a Jan. 6 outburst by Blair, who said he favored the policy of "zero tolerance" used in New York to clamp down on vagrants, pickpockets, and other low-level criminals. To the astonishment of some of his supporters, Blair said: "I don't give money to beggars."
But three days later Conservative David Maclean, a close Major ally, went further, saying, "I always give [beggars] something - I give them a piece of my mind."