In copying U.S. politics, British candidates have a ways to go.


The reigning cliché of the British election is that American-style politics has come to Britain. Well, not quite.

It’s true that the first nationally televised debates among the leaders of the three major parties have raised the interest level in the prime ministerial campaign and made personality rather than policy a dominant feature of the coverage.

But in other ways, British politics is a pale version of what Americans are used to seeing.

Start with Wednesday morning’s rally in Eastbourne, a seaside town in south-east England. It was the site of the opening event on the schedule of Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and by all measures the most charismatic and energized candidate of the campaign.

Wednesday is the final day of campaigning in what is the closest and most unpredictable three-way election in decades, the last day to energize voters and send a message. And yet, when I arrived an hour before the rally was to begin, the broad, green Western Lawns along King Edward’s Parade were nearly devoid of people.

There were a couple of television trucks along the street and a few police in evidence. On the lawn, a handful of volunteers were hastily blowing up yellow balloons, which they tied to the steel barriers that marked off the area from which Clegg would speak.

That was the extent of the stagecraft. There was, in fact, no stage to speak of, just a small platform with a crate set on top of it. No backdrop, no big signs, nothing else. As people arrived, they were handed placards. “You can make a difference,” said one. “I agree with Nick,” said the other.

In the United States, the closing days of a presidential election are filled with events that can draw thousands, even tens of thousands of people. In the final weeks of his presidential campaign in 2008, Barack Obama drew 100,000 people in both Denver and St. Louis. John McCain and Sarah Palin drew crowds in the thousands.

In Eastbourne, Clegg drew at best only a couple of hundred. Bob Beatty, a political scientist from Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., who was here to observe the election, said the crowd barely compared with one that a U.S. presidential candidate might encounter in the earliest days of the Iowa caucuses.

The entire staging spoke of the contrast between American and British politics. Clegg arrived by auto; his “battle bus,” as the campaign buses are called here, arrived a few minutes earlier.

He was given a big cheer as he arrived and as he made his way along the short runway to the platform. But there was no music, not even an introduction of the candidate. No local party leaders warmed up the crowd. Clegg simply hopped up on the platform and started speaking.

Obama would often speak for 30 or 45 minutes. Clegg’s prepared remarks lasted little more than six minutes. His closing argument was a clarion call for change, but what was most striking was the reserve of the polite audience. Though they whooped at his arrival and when he finished, his best lines were greeted with virtual silence.

When he finished, he took questions from the audience for five minutes. Then he stepped down along the equivalent of a rope line, where he spent 10 to 15 more minutes answering questions from reporters! That, of course, is unheard of in the United States. Reporters are kept far away from the candidates at presidential campaign events.

Clegg was gone in less than an hour, back in his car for a drive north to Gatwick Airport to catch his plane for a rally farther north in England. On his final day, his schedule called for just three public rallies, the last being in his home constituency of Sheffield.

There were touches of American politics in the schedules of the other candidates. David Cameron, the Conservative Party leader, staged a 24-hour, around-the-clock marathon overnight to show he was taking nothing for granted, which has become common before big primaries in the United States. Gordon Brown, the embattled prime minister and leader of the Labor Party, had a full day Wednesday, as he sought to rally his demoralized base.

During the rally in Eastbourne, someone in the crowd asked a Clegg aide where the local Liberal Democrat candidate was. No one had bothered to introduce him, though he is in a very close race, according to local reporters.

Told the candidate was somewhere close to where Clegg was standing, the man grumbled in disgust that Clegg had hogged the spotlight, “This isn’t a presidential campaign.”

Certainly elements of American politics have made their way into British campaigns for years. The cooperation between Bill Clinton’s campaign in 1992 and the then-rising Labor Party under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was so close that members of the Labor Party spent time in Little Rock in the Clinton war room.

When Blair was elected, his government quickly developed a reputation for trying to spin the press. American consultants worked for Blair and the Labor Party, and in subsequent campaigns both the major parties employed American consultants for everything from polling to voter mobilization.

This year’s debates marked another major step into American-style campaigns: The Conservatives and Labor both hired consultants who had worked for Obama in 2008 for advice.

And British reporters were introduced for the first time to “spin alley,” the post-debate scene in which advisers and surrogates claim their candidate won the debate regardless of what really happened. At the last debate a week ago, the Labor spinning began 20 minutes or so before the debate even ended.

One other difference is money. The British parties are allowed to spend only about $30 million during the campaign year. This year, Conservatives have a major advantage over Labor and the Liberal Democrats. Individual candidates are also tightly limited in what they can spend. Compare that with the hundreds of millions Obama alone spent on his campaign, though that lasted almost two full years.

The biggest difference between American and British campaigns is that there are no 30-second TV spots in Britain — no TV ads at all. The parties are given some free air time to deliver messages to the candidates, but advertising is barred. Instead of wall-to-wall spots in the final days of the campaign, British voters get to see billboards in the streets paid for by the parties.

So as British voters take pleasure in how the American-style debates have raised the interest level in their campaign and bemoan the more negative influences of American tactics and techniques, they should know they have a long way to go before they can claim that they have been taken over by the Americans.

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