Politics US-style

Whatever they do, we do
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Drinks were laid on by the British consulate and the bash, in a high-rise hotel with impressive views of the Chicago skyline, was sponsored by the Economist. Four thousand miles from the looming British election campaign, one of the summer's more surreal political encounters took place at the Democratic Convention, with a guest list including John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, Alistair Burt, a Conservative junior minister, and Sir David Steel, the Liberal Democrat elder statesman. As one of those present put it, with only a hint of irony, it was "just some friends abroad".

Ten days later, the gathering looks more like that Christmas get-together in no man's land during the First World War. As soon as the US convention season was over, the British parties were hard at work back home deploying ruthless political techniques pioneered in America. A Tory poster campaign challenging the Opposition on tax was met with a quick Labour response - Labour, we learnt, wants to create a 10p tax rate. Norma Major, meanwhile, was unveiled as a Conservative secret weapon and Labour basked in the glow of a pounds 1m donation from a London businessman.

Negative campaigning, rebuttal, the use of a wife to soften a politician's image, big-money donations to fund big-money advertising - American political methods are playing a part in British elections as never before. Gary McDowell, once a member of the Reagan administration and now director of the Institute of US Studies at London University, thinks it is here to stay: "What you are seeing is an exposure of the British political system to the American political system," he says. "It is like the smoke under the cabin door: once it's seeping through, you have a problem."

Not so long ago, cuddling up to America would have been heresy to most Labour politicians. The early 1980s, when unilateralism was party policy, marked a low point in trust and contact between the Opposition and the US. But as "modernisation" began under Neil Kinnock, so contact was renewed with the Democrats, themselves shaken and worried in the Reagan- Bush years. People who are now central to the Blair revolution, including Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson, make regular trips across the Atlantic.

Before the last British general election, Labour received some semi-official help from the US. Philip Gould, orchestrating Labour advertising, hosted a visit from two consultants to the Democrats. After Labour's 1992 defeat, however, the contacts moved up a gear and the traffic switched direction. Partly at the suggestion of Hillary Clinton, who had seen the effectiveness of the Conservative campaign, Gould was invited to the US to brief Democrats on Tory tactics such as the "Labour's Tax Bombshell" campaign.

Bill Clinton's eventual victory made a deep impression on Labour. Party strategists drew a blunt conclusion: the New Democrats had made the change, transformed their party and then announced the fact to the public. Labour had to complete its modernisation and make sure the whole country knew.

When Tony Blair won the leadership in 1994, this approach came to dominate. As one US observer put it: "Labour clearly sees Clinton as a man who has taken over a party which was floundering in large part because it was seen as being left of centre. Blair has moved his party to the right." This has meant wholeheartedly embracing market research techniques pioneered in the US and long used by the makers of such things as soap and cars to make their product lines as consumer-friendly as possible. The evidence of "focus groups" - panels of members of the public quizzed in depth about their likes and dislikes in politics, their aspirations and their fears - has been instrumental in bringing the Labour Party closer to the electorate, and enabling its transition.

The US link is strong and constant. For example, Clinton's new book, Between Hope and History, sets out a three-part strategy: "First, we must create opportunity for all Americans. Second, we must demand responsibility from all Americans. And third, we must forge a stronger American community." Labour's latest policy document has a chapter entitled "New Labour, new Life for our communities" which summarises one of the key principles as "opportunities provided, responsibility demanded".

If the language is similar, so are the methods of getting it across. In 1988, the Democrat contender, Michael Dukakis, saw his campaign destroyed by negative campaigning. The same tactic seriously damaged Neil Kinnock in 1992. Clinton found the answer: rebuttal. Clinton aide James Carville has written: "When the Bush campaign ran the TV spot that was almost a direct replica of the spot the Tories ran in Britain ['Labour's tax bombshell'], we were ready for it ... we checked their claims of what our plan would cost. Based on nothing we had said, they told the public we would raise taxes. In fact, we had proposed a cut in taxes ... the biggest difference between us and the Labour Party was that we responded. They never did and they got beat."

That pattern was repeated last week in London. As Prescott put it: "Rebuttal is now essential."

The Conservatives, too, have been watching America. In 1988, leading figures from Conservative Central Office visited the Republican camp. The Tories had been using focus groups and negative campaigning for years, but they still had tricks to learn. The 1988 Bush campaign, masterminded by Lee Atwater, broke new ground in negative campaigning which still influences Tory thinking. One recent Conservative party broadcast, featuring a stream of inmates being released from prison under a future Labour government, was clearly based on George Bush's infamous anti-Dukakis advertisement featuring the murderer Willie Horton.

The two-way contacts continued and, as victors in the British election of 1992, the Conservatives offered advice in that year to the Republicans. It went wrong, however, when the British government was accused of helping the Republicans by expediting a search of Home Office files for material that might damage Clinton. The Clinton camp, soon occupants of the White House, were slow to forget.

But the Tories still follow US politics closely. Their contingent at the Republican Convention in San Diego included Charles Lewington, the director of communications, Alan Duncan, parliamentary private secretary to the party chairman, Daniel Finkelstein, director of the Conservative research department, and Michael Simmonds, special adviser to the party chairman.

The unsuccessful Bush campaign in 1992 has convinced several senior Tories that, in addition to negative campaigning, they need to promote a positive vision - that life is better after the recession and that the Conservatives have a plan for a fifth term. Balancing positive and negative campaigning has caused tension at Central Office.

Moreover, the difficulty of the Republican candidate, Bob Dole, in dealing with Clinton's shifts to the right have helped focus Tory minds. Having argued first that Labour hadn't changed, then that it had but was a pale imitation of the Tories, Conservative strategists have now decided on a new line: Labour has changed but it has come up with the wrong answers.

Labour and the Tories, then, are desperately learning all they can from the American experience, and they are watching the presidential contest this autumn with rapt attention. Whatever they see, if it works and it will travel, they will use it here.

One result of all this has been cruder, simpler politics. Party election broadcasts have shortened from 10 minutes to five, with Labour floating the possibility of two-and-a-half-minute broadcasts. Even American observers are struck by the blunt negativity of Tory advertising. Lawrence Ingrassia, London bureau chief of the Wall Street Journal, rates the "demon eyes" campaign "more negative than most of the material in the States; it ranks up there in my top 10".

And British parties are now looking to make changes at their party conferences this autumn. One Labour strategist has suggested shifting debates and speeches to evenings, forcing television news bulletins to carry them live on prime time as in the US. More likely are increased use of video, simultaneous campaigning outside the conferences and new ways to humanise politics - what one strategist calls "the Oprah Winfrey factor".

British politicians know the pitfalls here. One recalled last week: "There was one speech which cropped up repeatedly in Chicago which I can recite verbatim. It goes: 'I can remember that night, it was a long night when my son little Joe was in pain. He needed medical help and dawn was a long time in coming. But we hung together as a family. And when dawn broke, we were stronger for it, a united family ... in America.' After a week, I felt I was going to be sick if I heard that speech again."

Such sentimentality may be out of the question here but increased use of case histories, such as the infamous "Jennifer's Ear" broadcast of the last election, seems inevitable. Strategists want to relate arguments more directly to personal experience, and to break down the perceived distance between the politician standing at a podium, and the public at home.

At the Conservative Central Council earlier this year, Brian Mawhinney, the party chairman, experimented with different conference formats, including a question and answer session with a Cabinet minister, Stephen Dorrell, who held court from an armchair. Expect more of this.

The emergence of Norma Major last week, more in the mould of a US-style first lady, is another sign that personalisation of the message is on the increase. The idea is to invite a comparison with Cherie Blair. As one source put it: "Norma is a considerable asset. She is popular, she is likeable. Like the Prime Minister, she is also an ordinary person, not such a high-powered career woman that most people cannot aspire to her position."

Parties are working not only on the medium, but on the message. As with soap powders, so with politics: a simple, memorable formula is required that will define what you are offering the consumer/voter. Mary Matalin, one of George Bush's spin doctors in 1992, has explained: "The principle is the same for political campaigns or companies: everyone says the same thing over and over."

With parties determined to restrict debate and division, party conferences are geared around this principle of the endless repetition of a simple message. Yet there is a problem here. The more anodyne the event and repetitive the message, the lower the level of media interest. It is significant that in a pre-election year the BBC is planning to scale down its live coverage of party conferences, purely on their declining journalistic value.

Politicians risk finding themselves playing highly-sophisticated mind games with only each other for an audience. Take last week's exchange on taxes. It was manifestly sterile, and yet it left both parties well satisfied. The Tories believe that if they repeat their negative message about Labour's tax plans often enough, some of it will stick. Labour thinks its rebuttals remind voters that it was the Tories who lied about tax in 1992, so it claims a "score draw" in a policy area where it used to have only defeats.

The legacy of such tactics may, however, be damaging for us all. In Chicago, one of the British politicians was heard to ask a Clinton strategist: "When two politicians tell the voters they should have contempt for their opposite numbers, doesn't the public end up with contempt for all politicians?"