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THE WORLD | BRITISH ELECTIONS

A Sweeping Majority for Modest Change

May 04, 1997|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

LONDON — The British Conservatives didn't just lose the election last Thursday. They were decimated, demolished and ground into dust. They got less than a third of the vote--the lowest vote for the Conservatives this century, the party's worst election disaster since 1832.

And yet, the British economy is doing very well. Booming, in fact. The best economy in Europe. How do you defeat a government when times are good? That was Tony Blair's challenge.

On Friday, former Prime Minister John Major said, "As I leave Downing Street this morning, I can say with some accuracy that the country is in far better shape than it was when I entered Downing Street. The economy is booming, interests rates are low and inflation is low and unemployment is falling."

British voters were happy with the way things were going in the country. But they were disgusted with the government. Why?

Well, let's see. There was the sleaze factor, a series of sex and money scandals involving Conservative members of Parliament. Bitter divisions in the government over Britain's role in Europe. And charges of incompetence over things like mad-cow disease.

In the 1980s, conservatives like Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the U.S. came in and made sweeping changes. By the end of the '80s, the conservative revolutions in both countries had ran out of steam. Thatcher was replaced by Major, Reagan by George Bush. The economy faltered. Voters seemed ready for change.

But Britain and the U.S. parted company in 1992. Americans threw Bush out. The British kept Major in. What happened in Britain was more or less what would have happened in the U.S. if Americans had reelected Bush in 1992.

British voters were sick and tired of the Conservatives. After 18 years of Conservative rule, it was time for a change. But not too much change. British voters did not want to undo the reforms of the Thatcher era or threaten a booming economy. Labor needed to offer a new government with as little change as possible.

The model for that kind of campaign was Bill Clinton. Not Clinton '92, when he was running as a challenger. Clinton '96, when he was running as an incumbent.

Clinton '92 ran on the economy, stupid. That was the last thing Blair needed to do. Clinton '96 ran as the great protector of the status quo against a threatening Republican Congress. Blair had to run as if he were the incumbent and the Conservatives were dangerous radicals threatening the status quo.

First of all, that meant convincing people it was safe to vote Labor. Clinton did it by triangulating. Blair did it by remaking the Labor Party.

When Americans elected Clinton in 1992, they thought he was a New Democrat. But after a tax hike, gays in the military and health-care reform, Americans doubted that Clinton was the real thing and repudiated him in the 1994 midterm. It took Clinton another two years to convince Americans that he was the real thing.

Blair has spent the last three years proving he is the real thing by ruthlessly modernizing the Labor Party. That meant convincing voters that Labor is no longer the party of big government, big unions, taxing and spending. "We built a party here of which we are proud," Blair told his constituents Thursday night.

In the end, Clinton convinced Americans he was a new kind of Democrat and won reelection. But Blair did more than that. He convinced the British that Labor was a new kind of party and that he was in complete control.

The Labor campaign reinforced that message. It was a very un-British campaign, full of sound bites, spin doctoring and rigid control of the message from party headquarters. British journalists denounced the campaign as too Americanized. But it worked. Labor came across as tough, disciplined and capable at last of running the country.

That was in sharp contrast to the Conservatives, whose campaign was divided and out of control. How could Major run the country, Blair asked, when he can't even run his own party?

In one respect, Blair and Clinton are quite different. Blair relishes conflict and struggle, while Clinton prefers reconciliation--or, as he puts it, to be "the repairer of the breach." But both leaders have the same mission: to prove that they can create a fairer, more compassionate society without going back to the discredited tradition of big government.

In the '96 U.S. campaign, Clinton portrayed Republicans as a threat to the safety net. In the '97 U.K. campaign, Blair warned voters of "a Tory future which threatens every family in Britain with the end of the National Health Service and with more failing schools."

In 1996, Clinton rejected ideology and called himself a problem-solver. In 1997, Blair said, "This isn't a mandate for dogma or doctrine or a return to the past. It is a mandate to get those things done in this country that desperately need doing."

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