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British Election Offers Up a Lesson or Two for U.S.

June 11, 2001|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times' Web site at:

LONDON — Wake a card-carrying member of Common Cause in the middle of the night, ask him to describe his ideal way to elect America's leaders and he'd probably come back with something very similar to the system they use in England. Compared with an American presidential campaign, British elections are short, unobtrusive and inexpensive. It's the difference between a week on the strip in Las Vegas and a night out at the bingo parlor in Liverpool.

To U.S. political reformers, those qualities are all unconditional virtues. The British approach does produce some clear benefits--particularly a ramshackle intimacy that pleasantly contrasts with the imperial pretension of the race for the White House. But the British also pay a price for so severely limiting the time and money political parties have available to make their case. And those costs highlight virtues reformers usually overlook in the American system.

By any measure, British campaigns impose themselves on the country far less than the American version. George W. Bush made his first campaign appearance 17 months before he was elected in November; British Prime Minister Tony Blair called this election just 30 days before he was reelected Thursday. Bush and Al Gore spent nearly $310 million on their campaigns, with the Democratic and Republican National Committees chipping in an additional $535 million; by law, the British parties can spend only about $24 million each in the election year. Individual candidates for the House of Commons can spend, on average, only $36,000 themselves.

Best of all from the reformer perspective, British politicians are prohibited from buying television or radio advertising. The parties are given a thin ration of free television time, but there's nothing like the paid barrage that U.S. candidates launch for months before an election. When the parties really want to get nasty here, they unveil an attack billboard.

This system has undeniable strengths. Politicians spend much less time raising money--and accumulate far fewer debts to special interests. And because they can't reach voters through paid advertising, candidates for Parliament must rely more on shoe leather than sound bites.

Consider David Miliband, the former top policy advisor to Blair who won a seat last week in South Shields, a blustery blue-collar town south of Newcastle on the North Sea. On the Saturday before the vote, Miliband spent the day handing out fliers along the town's commercial strip, knocking on doors in a publicly funded senior apartment building and shedding his shoes to meet with half a dozen men in a Bangladeshi community center.

Along the way, he fielded complaints about the local schools, the waiting time at the hospitals, even the condition of the windows and kitchens at the senior home. All day, the closest thing he heard to a national issue was a proposal from one woman at the senior center to reintroduce conscription as a way to deplete the stock of troublemaking young men in the neighboring public housing complex. A day with Miliband raises to a universal truth former House Speaker Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill's maxim about U.S. elections: All politics is local.

Even the prime minister encounters the voters at eye-level. When Blair appeared at a campaign event, he was trailed by just a few aides and security guards. There isn't the presidential phalanx of security, the rope lines and the retinue of 20-somethings in sunglasses barking urgently into cell phones.

Fewer trappings encourage less deference. Voters here don't put Blair on the pedestal that the U.S. system implicitly encourages for the president. When Blair appeared at a school early last week, a group of young voters felt no hesitation about challenging his ideas and interrupting his answers; one young man engaged Blair in a 10-minute inquisition in which he cut off Blair's promise of better days to come with a curt dismissal: "Well, you pledged so much last time and it didn't happen."

So far, so good. The intimacy of the British system couldn't be entirely replicated in America because it springs partly from the fact that members of Parliament represent districts with as little as a fifth as many voters as members of the U.S. House. (Reducing districts to that level in the United States would require a vast increase in the number of House seats, and it's difficult to think of a problem for which more House members is the right answer.) Still, even in America, tighter limits on spending and advertising would almost certainly demand more grass-roots campaigning, which would in turn encourage a less deferential electorate.

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