The coming British election, which must be held no later than May, is shaping up as a nasty brawl. The new Labor Party leader, Tony Blair, hopes to topple 17 years of Conservative Party power by knocking out Prime Minister John Major.
The press is predicting the contest will be the dirtiest in recent memory. Labor is so determined to win that party leaders reportedly are considering the unprecedented step of cutting trade unionists and other activists out of policy-making positions by dismantling the constituency parties that have served as Labor's power base. The intent is to make them appear even less radical than the revamped image they sought with the installation of the mild-mannered Blair, who shoved aside the Socialist-oriented Neil Kinnock.
Divorcing trade unionists from their special interests in the Labor Party is akin to Democrats in America renouncing labor union campaign money, along with labor's voter-turnout skills, and instructing them they will have no more influence in selecting government officials than any other citizen.
Comparisons with American parties, candidates, and officials can be tricky. Mr. Blair has pictured himself as Bill Clinton in 1992, challenging not only an incumbent, but a party that has been in power longer than Republicans under Ronald Reagan and George Bush. The difference is that, unlike America's apparently troubled economy in 1992, the economy in Britain is on the upswing. A year-end Gallup Poll for The Daily Telegraph shows Mr. Major's popularity improving. In 1992, Bush's numbers were heading south.
Since 1957, whenever the British Gallup Poll has found optimism outweighing pessimism at Christmastime, the government in power has usually, but not always, won the next election. Thirty-seven percent believe 1997 will be better than 1996, while only 21 percent believe things will get worse. More good news for the Tories lies in the gap between optimists and pessimists--a full 16 percentage points--almost as large as the gap five years ago when Mr. Major won the last election and even larger than in 1983 when Margaret Thatcher was reelected.
The Catholic Church has decided to enter the campaign, threatening the truce over the abortion issue between Labor and Conservatives. Cardinal Basil Hume stated in an interview that Catholics would find it impossible to vote for a candidate who actively supports abortion. But Mr. Hume stopped short of saying that abortion should be a litmus test for Britain's 4.4 million Catholics. "They have to take it into account as a principle when they are deciding on who to vote for," he said. Reaction in a nation where only a little more than 2 percent attend church of any kind is split along predictable pro-life, pro-choice lines. Neither Mr. Blair nor Mr. Major is expected to say much on the subject.
The campaign, which will not officially begin until the prime minister announces the election date, seemed to be warming up when both candidates issued New Year's statements. Mr. Major delivered a kind of "Contract With Britain" when he issued five resolutions that included a tax cut, keeping inflation in check, price reductions, a drop in mortgage rates, and more jobs. A nationwide survey seemed to support Mr. Major's job promises. It said 21 percent of bosses expect to hire more workers this year, with only 15 percent predicting reductions. Mr. Major said the country's rosy prospects could not be trusted in the hands of "inexperienced" Labor.
Borrowing from Bill Clinton's "instant response" team, Mr. Blair called Mr. Major a "hypocrite" for claiming to be "Mr. Nice Guy" and not responsible for charges made against several labor members by Conservative Party leaders, one of which contained an advertisement portraying Mr. Blair with "demon eyes." Mr. Blair promised to link Mr. Major with anything "dirty" coming from the Conservative Party.
Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, may be the first to invoke 21st-century imagery in the campaign. He said Britain is in danger of "sleepwalking" into the next century and that the forthcoming election will be the least intelligent ever as negative Conservatives and timid Labor compete for office by saying "as little of substance as possible."
If little of substance comes from the British campaign, it will, indeed, resemble the last American election.
© 1997, Los Angeles Times Syndicate