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Why Britain's American-style election will have un-American consequences

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By Matt Frei
Sunday, May 2, 2010

LONDON -- You may have come across them in the last U.S. presidential campaign. Polite, pale young men and women, eyes rimmed jet-lag red, notepads in hand and digital cameras at the ready, eagerly recording every detail, peppering candidates' staffers with earnest questions and reporting diligently back to headquarters -- a sort of benign form of transatlantic industrial espionage.

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Since the 1980s, Britain's Conservative and Labor parties have dispatched a few scouts across the pond to see how Uncle Sam does elections. But in 2008 there were dozens of them, witnessing the success of Barack Obama and returning here crammed with revolutionary ideas about how to massage victory for their own candidates in the next British contest.

Those lessons are being reinforced by a posse of American campaign veterans. Anita Dunn, former communications director for Obama's White House, is helping the Conservatives spit-polish their message. The Labor Party has recruited Joel Benenson, Obama's lead campaign pollster, as well as Michael Sheehan, a speech coach who apparently specializes in "loosening up" politicians. (Our incumbent prime minister, Labor's Gordon "bigoted woman" Brown, could no doubt benefit from his magic.)

So as our election on Thursday approaches, it's no surprise that commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have observed a British campaign that strikingly resembles an American one. There's Brown, asking you to be his Facebook friend; David Cameron, the smooth young leader of the Conservative Party, communicating via his "Webcameron" video blog; and Nick Clegg, the boyish face of the Liberal Democrats, whose following has gone viral on Twitter. Sarah Brown, Samantha Cameron and Miriam Clegg are fulfilling their roles as first-ladies-in-waiting, seeking to give their spouses a homey air. There's breakfast with the Camerons, lunch with the Browns, a stroll around the park with the Cleggs and their three boys -- all meticulously contrived, reassuringly normal and yes, uncannily American.

Margaret Thatcher admired the stamina of U.S. elections, but the Iron Lady would rather have eaten raw toads than have allowed the media into her living room while Denis was pouring himself another gin. The irony today for the "special relationship" between Washington and London is that this overtly American-style election has potentially rearranged Britain's political furniture and pushed our island further from America and closer to Europe.

The increasingly presidential style of British parliamentary elections is in large part a legacy of American darling Tony Blair, the former prime minister who frequently appealed directly to the electorate at large, over the heads of his skeptical Labor Party. He paid the price when he was ushered to the exit in favor of Brown, who now is desperately clinging to the keys of 10 Downing Street -- especially after his on-mike, off-camera comment calling a constituent "bigoted," a gaffe that highlighted the chasm between the prime minister's public schmoozing and his private grumpiness.

Much as in America, incumbency in Britain has become a ball and chain that candidates drag around on the campaign trail, which is why this year's battle of "hope and change" vs. "grizzled experience in a time of crisis" should seem familiar. The Labor Party has been in power for 13 years, and voters want to know why in all that time it has failed to act on many of the impassioned promises it is making once again. Last year's agonizing parliamentary expenses scandal -- in which lawmakers were found to have billed the public for everything from moat-cleaning to ornamental ducks -- has become a symbol of abuse and arrogance, and Britons' dim view of their elected representatives and their institutions rivals Americans' low esteem for Congress.

The first-ever prime ministerial television debates are perhaps the most obvious symbol of the Americanization of our campaigns. The first one, on April 15, was heralded by a front-page picture in the London Times of Richard Nixon debating John Kennedy in 1960, signaling that British elections were finally and truly entering the television age. Live-streaming on the Internet was accompanied by televised focus groups of Britons wired to machines that recorded every reaction to every word, noting every wince with the precision of an EKG. The debates, governed by 76 separate rules, were more choreographed than a medieval step dance, and the candidates rehearsed them to death. That, too, should feel familiar to American audiences.

As it turned out, television ended up trumping all the gadgets of social media. This was gladiatorial television at its best, not least because it created the campaign's biggest surprise: "Cleggmania."

Emerging from a distant third place in the polls, the 43-year-old Clegg wowed the unsuspecting public in the first debate, a forum that granted him equal billing and airtime. While the two major-party candidates glowered at each other, Clegg was the first to look straight into camera and address the millions of people watching at home: "Don't let them tell you that the only choice is between two old parties who have been playing pass the parcel with your government for 65 years now -- making the same old promises, breaking the same old promises." Cameron must have been kicking himself. It was his idea to include Clegg.

Cameron recovered a bit in the subsequent debates. The consensus scorecard for the final set-to on Thursday had Cameron the winner, Clegg a close second and Brown -- the biggest loser in the Clegg boomlet -- a distant third.

Clegg, whose wife is a Spanish lawyer and whose sons are named Alberto, Antonio and Miguel, is half-Dutch and wholly wedded to the concept of a more unified Europe, in which Britain plays a leading role rather than orbiting as a subversive moon. His special relationship would probably be with Brussels, the E.U.'s de facto capital, not Washington. He has repeatedly said that a more unified Europe would play a much bigger role on the world stage, gaining more respect not just from the United States but from China as well.

In America, by the time the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates joust with each other on television, the electorate has already seen them both in numerous primary debates. But the British debates -- the first and only opportunity for most citizens to watch their party leaders spar -- went a long way in a short campaign to accentuate the candidates' good traits and exacerbate their bad ones. Until these forums, few voters even knew what Clegg looked like. As the Economist magazine put it, it was less a case of the devil you know (Brown) or the devil you don't know (Cameron), but who the devil is Clegg? Thanks to Clegg's combination of eloquence and urgency, the debates worked on his bid like a performance-enhancing drug.

And that is why an election that should have been the Tories' to lose has become a three-horse race. The polls consistently predict what is charmingly called a hung Parliament -- that is, no party wins an overall majority, and an informal pact or a formal coalition may have to be formed in order to govern. The markets don't like it. The pound wobbles at the mere thought of it. Washington, too, is used to something less complicated from its closest ally.

Despite Clegg's growing popularity -- at the moment he is narrowly behind Cameron in the polls -- the British electoral system makes it virtually impossible for his party to dominate. But the likely horse-trading would hoist Clegg into the position of kingmaker. He has already stated his price: electoral reform that allows his party to win a number of parliamentary seats more reflective of its popularity in the polls.

If that happens, the duopoly of British politics will be history, and coalition governments will become as normal as they are in Germany and the Netherlands, nudging Britain a lot closer to the continent. And that is just one more way that the most American election we have ever held in Britain could lead to the most un-American consequences.

Matt Frei is the anchor of "BBC World News America."



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