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British Prime Minister Major Sets May 1 for U.K. Elections

By Fred Barbash
The Washington Post
LONDON

British Prime Minister John Major Monday set May 1 as the date for general elections, kicking off a formal campaign that is widely viewed here as the most Americanized in the country's history: longer, more expensive and more personality-oriented than ever.

For the first time, the two major parties have agreed to hold a televised debate between the contenders for prime minister - Major, the Conservative Party leader, and Labor Party leader Tony Blair. Prime ministerial candidate debates were resisted in the past in part because they were perceived to be inappropriate since voters cast their ballots for a party's candidate in their district rather than for its leader.

This year, with Labor heavily favored to end 18 years of rule by the Conservatives, also called Tories, sources close to Major said he believes the gap in the polls is so wide (20 to 25 percent) that he had nothing to lose by accepting Blair's debate challenge. Widely quoted Monday was Major's response in 1992 when he rejected an invitation to debate Neil Kinnock, then leader of the Labor Party: "Every party leader who expects to lose tries that trick," Major said; "Every politician who expects to win says no.'"

The Liberal Democratic Party, the third party here, will challenge the debate plan in court because Major conditioned his participation on the exclusion of the Liberal Democrats' leader, Paddy Ashdown.

Debate or not, most commentators agreed that Britain has succumbed to a type of campaigning it had taken pride in avoiding, less a competition between parties and more a contest between leaders, a campaign in the presidential style, as virtually all British news reports said Monday.

"I think that it is almost the final act of confirmation that British politics is adopting all those American features" previously deplored here, said Patrick Seyd, a specialist in British politics at Sheffield University, noting that "spin doctors" and other U.S. techniques are also in fashion this year.

"People do cringe in fear," said Byron Shafer, an Oxford University professor of American government. But he said that what is happening in Britain is also happening in every developed nation. "American politics may have gotten there first, but in some sense what we're talking about is modern politics in a highly educated society that is media-driven. People make decisions for themselves. They are concerned about leadership, finding a person who's reasonable, able and shares some of their values."

British political analysts, as well as many Americans, traditionally have regarded election campaigns here as somehow more sensible. Voters elect members of parliament by party, and the majority party, not the voter, chooses the prime minister. The campaigns' relatively short duration and the prohibition on paid television advertising has limited campaign costs, while the comparatively heavier stress on parties and party manifestos has made discussion more policy-oriented.

British law sets no fixed date for general elections, the only requirement being that no more than five years pass between them, meaning the latest possible date this time would have been May 22. Other than that, the timing is up to the government and prime minister, who starts the official campaign period by going to the queen, as Major did Monday, and naming the date.

Allegations of questionable campaign contributions - including money from foreigners to the Conservative Party - have been swirling here for four years. The fact that British law places no restrictions on sources or amounts of party campaign funds and imposes no requirements for disclosure of campaign finance has become an issue, albeit not a major issue. Spending by individual House of Commons candidates in their districts is restricted, but they all benefit from party expenditures.

The convergence of campaign styles is no accident. British political operatives from both parties have gone to the United States to observe campaign techniques in recent years, Shafer noted. Labor has copied the rapid-response "war room" technique perfected by the Clinton campaign in 1992.

And Labor - which has not won a general election here since 1974 - has all but dumped its socialist rhetoric and many of its traditional differences with the Conservatives, leaving the personalities and styles of the two party leaders as the most visible difference. Tory strategists, in particular, have decided that Major is significantly more liked than the party itself and have thrust the prime minister forward on his own.