Michelle Obama and the Americanization of the Britain general election

Prime Minister Gordon Brown dissolved parliament today and set the country on course for a raucous and unusual campaign ahead of the Britain general election on May 6. As candidates jockey, signs of political Americanization abound.

Stefan Rousseau/AP
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, center right, and his wife Sarah, center left, arrive at St Pancras Station, London on Tuesday to take the train to Rochester in Kent, after Brown called a May 6 general election.
Sang Tan/AP
Britain's Conservative Party leader, David Cameron, right, and wife Samantha arrive at County Hall in London to address the party supporters, Tuesday.

Michelle Obama’s popularity hasn’t gone unnoticed by British political spin-doctors.

Well before Prime Minister Gordon Brown fired the starting gun Tuesday for the Britain general election campaign, the wives of both the Labour and Conservative leaders had been playing increasingly important roles designed to enhance their partners’ appeal to voters.

The unprecedented importance of political spouses – Tory leader David Cameron calls his wife Samantha his "secret weapon" – is just one of the ways in which the campaign resembles a US presidential election like none before.

Like a political version of the WWII film The Americanization of Emily, in which a roguish James Garner plies English rose Julie Andrews with pilfered US chocolate and nylons, Britain's politicians are reaching across the Atlantic to woo voters.

Tactics and strategies include the use of Obama-style Internet campaigning to harness grassroots activists, negative campaigning offensives which target specific personalities, US-style presidential debates -- and political consultants on both sides who assisted the successful 2008 Obama campaign.

The focus on personalities demonstrates how British general elections have started to resemble presidential-style races rather than battles between competing power blocs, even though there is clear blue water between both of the main parties on economic issues in this campaign. Why the change? UK voters want it that way.

“This is the first election where the individual leaders have actually been as high as the policies in terms of priorities identified by voters,” says Roger Mortimore, Head of Political Research at pollsters Ipsos MORI.

Charisma matters

No surprise then that the Tories have been hammering away at Brown, as woefully lacking the charisma and communication skills of his predecessor, Tony Blair.

Mr. Brown’s wife, Sarah, has been playing a key role in efforts to humanize the Labour Party leader’s often distant and dour image, introducing him at last year’s Labour Party conference as “My husband, my hero."

Formerly a formidable public relations executive who chose to focus on her family and charity work after marrying Brown, her public profile has grown over the past year while her one million plus followers on the social networking site Twitter amount to six times the membership of the Labour party.

Conservative activists are hoping that her success can be emulated by Samantha Cameron, the creative director of a luxury goods company and blue-blooded descendant of King Charles II.

The postures, pronouncements and – most of all the clothes – worn by both women have become permanent daily fixtures of press coverage, something which both Cameron and Brown seem to be in no hurry to stop.

Why? The answer may be the crucial importance all parties are attaching to female voters, a demographic who favored Labour in the past two elections but who currently back the Conservatives in polls by 37 points to 29.

Soccer 'mums'?

The US-experience has been influential in this regard according to Sarah Lapham, a Texas-born public relations consultant now living in London.

“Many people believe it was a soccer mum vote which pushed Obama over the edge to win the US election, and it’s also a factor here,” she adds.

Sam Baker, editor-in-chief of Red Magazine, one of Britain’s leading women’s magazines, agrees that the influence of Michelle Obama has been a factor in the current election campaign, but adds that attempts to specifically target the votes of women have been a fixture of British politics since at least the mid 90s.

Then, "Worcester Woman" became shorthand for a type of middle-class female voter that Labour needed to win over to capture formerly solid Tory seats.

“It is true to say though that ever since Blair, campaigns have become a lot more presidential in style and much more about personality,” says Ms. Baker.

Similarities to last year’s US election meanwhile also extend to cyberspace.

In particular, Labour has invested heavily in strategies to help party members access databases that allow them to contact voters and build relationships.

"Historically Labour has used technology as a form of control,” Douglas Alexander, the party’s election co-coordinator told the Guardian in February. “We would use pagers and faxes to send out messages telling people what line to take. The key learning from the Obama campaign is to use technology to empower your supporters."

According to Ms. Lapham, the PR executive, the ways in which both of the main parties have deployed new social media mirrors the way they are approaching the campaign as a whole.

While Labour’s approach has been more “issue specific,” the Conservatives have sought to capitalize on the popularity of their leader through "Webcameron," a video blog which has featured him talking to voters while being filmed doing chores at home in the family kitchen.

Next week will see the advent of Britain’s most conspicuous import from American elections – televised debates.

UK debates? Obama vs. Obama

Brown, Cameron, and Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, will go head to head on April 15 in the first of three separately themed encounters, starting with domestic affairs.

In a bid to get in shape, both the Tories and Labour have once again reached across the Atlantic to borrow some of Barack Obama's election-winning know-how

The Tories are being assisted by Anita Dunn, a former White House communications director, and Bill Knapp, a former adviser to both Obama and Bill Clinton.

Labour has signed up Joel Benenson, Obama's lead campaign pollster and strategist, as well as Michael Sheehan, a speech coach who also worked on the Obama campaign.

Sheehan specializes in “loosening up” politicians who lack charisma under the television lights, such as John Kerry, the failed 2004 Democrat presidential candidate. Most observers in the UK say he has his work cut out for him.

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