British politics

Posted: May 16, 2005 12:00 AM

I have been following British politics since I started buying the London papers at the Harvard Square out-of-town newsstands in the run-up to the October 1964 British election -- and, on my first trip to London, queued up to sit in the gallery and watch the House of Commons and House of Lords debate British entry into the Common Market in October 1971. So perhaps I might be indulged in a making some reflections and observations on the British election just past.

 American political junkies love to watch question time in the House of Commons, with all its insulting questions and responses, the cheers and groans going up from the party benches. But British voters, it seems, are heartily sick of the adversary tone of their politics.

 One of the sources of Tony Blair's appeal when he became leader of the Labor Party in 1994 and when he led New Labor to victory in 1997 was that by accepting Thatcherism and going on from there, he suggested that the days of bitter argument were over.

 But of course they weren't and aren't. At a focus group conducted by American pollster Frank Luntz in the marginal seat of Milton Keynes North East, the air was thick with complaints that Labor and Conservative politicians were "bickering," and voters said they were switching to the supposedly positive Liberal Democrats. But on Election Day, Milton Keynes North East replaced a Labor M.P. with a Tory and the Lib Dems finished a poor third.

 Another thing many Americans have liked about British politics is that much less money is spent on it than in this country. But that is ceasing to be the case. M.P.s are still subject to ridiculous low spending limits in their districts during the five-week campaign period. But that doesn't really matter any more, because the parties' central offices were sending out huge mass mailings and have carefully designed the candidates' printed handouts weeks before.

 Britain does not allow campaign advertising on television. Hence, most of the ad money goes to print ads and billboards, which puts a premium on pithy slogans. My favorite this cycle was the Conservatives' "Are you thinking what we're thinking?" -- evidently an attempt to connect with voters who are thinking politically incorrect things about immigration.

 Moreover, the national newspapers, both tabloid and broadsheet, all have clear and well-known political leanings, across the political spectrum. The Guardian and Independent are Labor, the Telegraph Tory, the Times was for Thatcher in the 1980s and John Major in 1992, but has backed Blair's Labor Party, though this time with reservations and hopes for a larger Conservative minority.

 British political debate may be nasty, but politicians on the stump are, by American standards, reticent. Candidates do not ask for votes, they just present themselves as their party's candidate and ask for consideration. M.P.s do not identify themselves as such because, technically, they are not: When the Queen dismisses Parliament, there are no M.P.s until their election is announced late on election night. The voters in turn are reticent -- but not as reticent as they used to be. This year, I found Britons on the stump and at polling stations much more willing to say which party they're voting for and why than I have in past elections.

 And occasionally, in Britain as in America, you encounter a voter just as he or she is making up his mind -- a magic moment for any student of politics. In Wimbledon, I saw a husband and wife talking together outside the polling station, mulling it over as they have apparently been doing for days: They went inside and after they left told me they voted for Labor.

 In Hove on the Channel coast, just west of Brighton, I saw Conservative candidate and think tank head Nicholas Boles talk for 15 minutes with a Jewish couple and their teenage son, running over every issue from the Iraq war to gay rights to the schedule of the pickup of the local trash bins with a charm and political skill comparable to Bill Clinton's. I think, though I cannot be sure, that he picked up those two votes, but they were not quite enough: He lost by 420.

 British politics has a certain intimacy because a candidate for Parliament can personally canvass his whole constituency: Britain's 646 districts have an average population of 91,000, compared to our 435 congressional districts' average population of 678,000. Yet personality there continues to matter less than party. The discipline of political science is based on the notion that you can make supportable generalizations about political behavior across cultures. But British politics remains, to this American observer, stubbornly different from our own.