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Britain at the Polls.

How did it happen? Britain entered the 1992 election in the midst of a long and deepening recession, with virtually every economic indicator plunging. The Chancellor of the Exchequer rashly spoke of glimpses of green shoots of growth, but they were only a mirage in a desert wasteland. The Labour Party, much reformed, was tiding high in the polls, though that lead was narrowing sharply as the election approached. The left of the party was vanquished, a spent force, and no one could run a successful red-peril smear campaign against them this time.

Looking back, the political scene in Britain at the time was quite similar to that in the United States around August of 1992. The electoral and the economic cycle was badly out of kilter. So deep was the recession that there was no chance for the government to generate a little spending boom, a mini-miracle. Sweeteners were attempted, but none of them were enough to sway the mortgage-stricken voters, overburdened with high interest debts from the wildborrowing eighties.

Margaret Thatcher (like Ronald Reagan in this country), though departed, was a ghost at the banquet, her malevolent presence and the remains of her policies still breathing icily down the neck of John Major. The election was his bid to break free, to be his own man. His main asset was that he was not her, and his virtues were the ones she lacked. Emollient by nature, a consensual leader, Major (like Bush) had spoken of wanting a "nation at ease with itself." That seemed to herald an era of calm, of consolidation, and less of that restless reforming zeal, tearing things up by the roots and standing things on their head which characterized his predecessor's reign. Where she brought the sword and flamboyance, his small colorless presence seemed to promise a time of quiet competence and getting on with the dull and technical job of good government.

But Major had trouble with the "vision thing" --his language was impoverished, his vocabulary limited. If he struggled to find an image or a metaphor it was invariably weak and, by the time he'd finished with it, utterly exhausted. His televised interviews were interminably boring, his speeches lackluster. In desperation, his handlers put him on soap boxes in the middle of crowds--Honest John, the man who was at least physically closest to the people. But once on his soap box, he never had a bright or punchy phrase, no sound bite worth the name.

The campaign Major ran was sharply counter to his nice-guy image. Ferocious blasts of negative advertising in the last few weeks hammered home one message, and one alone--Labour would tax the voters more. A curious poster showing two boxing gloves headlined Labour's "Double Whammy" of "More Taxes, Higher Prices." (No one quite knew what the American phrase "Double Whammy" meant, and the words themselves caused a useful controversy.) Another showed munitions labeled "Labour's Tax Bombshell," and a third featured a locust devouring all in its path. There was no positive message about Conservative policies, no message of hope, no boasts about past achievements.

The strategy worked. Opinion polls showed that by the end of the campaign, half of all voters believed they'd be worse off under Labour. The great issues of the day--Europe, unemployment, and the long-term economy--had been subsumed in a squabble over Labour's hypothetical spending proposals.

That success didn't go unnoticed by the Bush operatives. If the Conservative party could win with such a message in the eye of an economic storm, couldn't the Republicans do likewise? So the Tories sent over advisers to the Bush campaign, and they duly turned out the same low and monotonous theme, but to very different effect.

Labour pains

Why were the results so different? That is the question Labourites are now asking as they sift through the ingredients of the Clinton victory, searching for clues to their own future. Labour suddenly hopes that what happens on one side of the Atlantic can be mirrored on the other next time around.

After each election since 1945, Oxford's Nuffield College has sponsored a study of extraordinary detail. This book is designed as the first of a permanent series to run alongside the Nuffield studies, complementing dry facts with a series of interpretations. Anthony King and Ivor Crewe are among the most serious and interesting of Britain's academic political commentators, and together with others have produced a pen portrait of British politics, from the last election in 1987 to the election of 1992, that is both elegant and illuminating.

One thing this book makes clear is that John Major did almost as much to lose the election as George Bush did to lose his. Major's campaign was low and base, appealing almost exclusively to crude pocketbook instincts. It offered no inspiration, not even a fig leaf of an honorable or exciting reason for voting Conservative. There was no clear program and, after Thatcherism, there was no mission or direction. So why did he win?

Partly because Neil Kinnock was no Bill Clinton. Wary about Kinnock's second outing, his strategists kept him on a tight leash. It was a campaign which Labour hoped to win by default if they made no mistakes. They thought neat suits, respectable policies, promises to spend no more than they could earn in growth, and only raising taxes for a small top income group would cause the recession election to fall to them. They too had no vision, no message. Where Clinton's carefully crafted package of welfare proposals looked tough, yet tender and innovative, Labour's looked like warmed-over and watered-down remnants of past policies. Clinton won his election, and Kinnock lost his while Bush and Major fought almost identical campaigns.

But the chasm between British and American politics is so colossal that crude comparisons are almost meaningless. Clintonism has become a code word in Britain for a number of reforms the Labour radicals support, but Labour's interpretation of Clinton is probably about as close to the actual man and his politics as the Church of England's idea of Jesus is to the historical Christ. The policy advocated by Labour's Clintonites is electoral and constitutional reform of a system groaning with institutional corruption and decrepitude. Clintonism has also become a code word for those who wish they hadn't elected the staid John Smith as leader, but had skipped a generation and opted for the young, bright, radical, and far more interesting Tony Blair.

The British experience over recent elections leads many to suppose that no one can win an election now if they look as though they might tax anyone any more, even the top few highest earners.

But does the Clinton experience suggest that this need be an iron rule? Is it possible, some in the Labour Party are asking, that a powerful leader with a coherent and attractive vision and a sense of mission can overwhelm a negative campaign from the opposition and win, even when spending plans may mean higher taxes in the end? Or did Bush lose on that very issue, with the voters never forgiving him after reading his lying lips? The British Conservative party has cut income taxes consistently. The only economic success of the last decade that is left intact is that commitment. John Major is now under intense pressure to raise income taxes to ease the debt burden. But shuddering as he looks at the fate of George Bush, few think he will dare.

These transatlantic comparisons are all voodoo politics, each side drawing what hope and comfort they choose from systems and nations too radically different to make much sense. But for those who wish to study British politics for their own sake, this book is comprehensive, intelligent, and readable.

Polly Toynbee is the social affairs editor of the British Broad-casting Corporation.
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Author:Toynbee, Polly
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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