US hired guns join British election shoot-out

Britain's election is becoming more Presidential than ever, writes John Rentoul
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Indy Politics
The election campaign teams of both main parties have long had close links with their US counterparts and with Washington political consultants, the "hired guns" of American politics.

The Conservative and Labour backroom teams are already running a "long campaign" for the next general election which is more like an American presidential race than ever before.

Labour's campaign headquarters, run by Tony Blair's closest aide Peter Mandelson in Millbank Tower just up the Thames from the Palace of Westminster, is explicitly modelled on the Clinton campaign "war room" of his first presidential victory four years ago.

George Stephanopolous, the Clinton advisor who is expected to spend time with the Blair camp, was not only the "Body Man" for that campaign, whose job was to be at the side of the President (The Body) at all times. But he remained Clinton's closest adviser throughout his first term, and could offer Labour valuable lessons on how to manage the transition from campaigning to government.

Labour's connections with Clinton's team are now richer than ever. Mr Mandelson visited the Republican convention in San Diego, and watched the second debate between Mr Clinton and Bob Dole with Mr Stephanopolous. Jonathan Powell, Mr Blair's chief of staff, was a diplomat at the British Embassy in Washington and visits regularly. Philip Gould, Mr Blair's polling adviser, has been working with the second Clinton campaign as he did with the first. John Prescott, Labour deputy leader, visited the Democratic convention in Chicago with his aides.

The last time Mr Clinton won, Mr Blair visited Clinton's team himself, along with Gordon Brown, the shadow chancellor. It was there that Mr Brown invented "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime", the slogan which helped carry his ally to the Labour leadership. The lessons Labour has learnt have not just been about techniques, although instant rebuttal of Tory propaganda is now an obsession in the Millbank war room, with the help of the computer database of political quotes and documents known as Excalibur.

"I know how to work the last 90 days of a campaign," the 35-year-old Mr Stephanopolous said when asked what kind of help he was offering Labour. "Day-to-day tactics, how to respond to the tried and true techniques of the right wing."

But the lessons are political too, as some of the opponents of Labour's "modernisers" fear. Mr Clinton won on Tuesday with some striking coalitionist rhetoric about the need for the parties to work together.

Partly, this is a feature of the American political system, but it certainly chimes with some of Mr Blair's talk of governing "from the centre", and reaching out to Liberal Democrats and even One-Nation Tories.

There are also pointers to further internal reforms of the Labour Party, with some of Mr Blair's supporters openly advocating turning the party conference into a "showcase" for the party rather than a policy-making body.

Labour should learn from the "poll lift which successful conventions gave the Republicans and then the Democrats this summer in America," says a blueprint drawn up by the "moderniser" faction, the Labour Co-ordinating Committee.

The Conservatives are learning from America too. Although their flirtation with the psychological system of Dick Wirthlin, Ronald Reagan's public relations guru, was an expensive failure, costing over pounds 1m in the dying days of Margaret Thatcher's premiership, they have maintained contacts with Republican advisers.

After the Republican landslide in the 1994 mid-term elections, Newt Gingrich's pollster and adviser Frank Luntz visited London and met Cabinet ministers Stephen Dorrell and Michael Portillo.

The visit was arranged by Danny Finkelstein at the Social Market Foundation, and something of an American politics addict who is now head of research at Tory Central Office.

Mr Finkelstein has long drawn political lessons from America. And, although the "New Labour, New Danger" was rubbished by his favoured Republican contacts, the lesson he draws from the American election is that incumbency and the economy are the Tories' key advantages.