Spin-doctors to party it US-style

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Unlike his leader, John Prescott will not be heading for Chianti country this year. Instead he will be taking in the less picturesque sights of Chicago at the end of August. This week marks the start of the US party convention season and many British politicians and spin-doctors will be boosting their air miles.

This weekend a delegation from Conservative Central Office, including Charles Lewington, director of communications, takes up residence in San Diego for the Republican convention. Later in the month, a heavyweight contingent of Labour policitians, including the Shadow Chancellor, Gordon Brown and Mr Prescott, will be at the Democrat convention in Chicago. So will Lord Holme, who is going to run the Liberal Democrat election campaign.

The visitors will certainly have fun. A former Tory delegate to the Republican convention recalled it was "one long party". But what will they learn? Some visitors will no doubt be impressed by technical innovations - one Tory recalled a mechanism which, if speakers carried on beyond their allotted time, caused them to disappear as their podium sank into the floor. In general, however, American con- ventions are not readily transferable to Britain, as Neil Kinnock found to his cost after the Sheffield rally in 1992. "You can't really import the razzmatazz of a US convention to Britain," said one US political expert. "Everything the British didn't like about Atlanta, they'll dislike about the conventions."

What really matters is the opportunity to compare campaigning techniques. This time, almost for sure, the American elections will come first. Four years ago, however, Americans went to the polls a few months after the British. The Democrats benefited. James Carville, President Clinton's 1992 campaign director, has recalled a visit from Philip Gould, who ran Labour's now-defunct Shadow Communications Agency, to the Little Rock headquarters. Gould went through the "late in the game" Tory strategy and how it had undermined confidence in Labour. Mr Carville said: "The biggest difference between us and the Labour Party was that we responded. They never did, and they got beat."

That message has sunk in among Mr Blair's strategists. Labour media managers see parallels between George Bush's 1988 campaign against Michael Dukakis and the Tories' current negative campaigning ("New Labour, New Danger"). The principle, one source said, is to "paint your opponent before he has the chance to define himself; smear from the general to the particular".

One Tory broadcast shows a stream of prisoners being released under a Labour government. It echoes a similar clip in Mr Bush's famous election broadcast on crime featuring the murderer Willie Horton.

Labour is following Mr Carville's maxim that "speed kills" - in other words an instant rebuttal is the most effective tactic against negative campaigning. Hence the recent newspaper and poster campaign against the Tories ("read between the lies").

All three British parties, expected to fight "presidential" US-style campaigns, will watch how the candidates project themselves.

The Conservatives, who blotted their copybook with Bill Clinton in 1992 by aiding the Republican campaign almost openly, will be more circumspect this time, particularly in light of the Republicans' big deficit in the opinion polls. Nobody likes backing a loser. Labour will have fewer qualms about the Democrats. Should they require his help this year, Mr Gould will be available. In return, Labour would probably get help from some of the Democrats' media gurus and "focus group" people. The party would regard any association with a re-elected Clinton government as a propganda coup.

The Conservatives' expectations are more pragmatic. "If Dole manages to win then we can present this as a victory for conservatism," said one Tory strategist. "If Clinton gets back, of course, it's a triumph for the incumbent government."