The Take

In copying U.S. politics, British candidates have a ways to go

A power-sharing deal between Cameron and Nicholas Clegg of the Liberal Democrats ended 13 years of Labor Party rule and resulted in Britain's first coalition government since the 1940s.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 5, 2010; 2:22 PM

EASTBOURNE, ENGLAND -- The reigning cliche of the British election is that American-style politics has come to Britain. Well, not quite.

It's true that the first nationally televised debates among the leaders of the three major parties have raised the interest level in the prime ministerial campaign and made personality rather than policy a dominant feature of the coverage.

But in other ways, British politics is a pale version of what Americans are used to seeing.

Start with Wednesday morning's rally in Eastbourne, a seaside town in southeast England. It was the site of the opening event on the schedule of Nick Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats and by all measures the most charismatic and energized candidate of the campaign.

Wednesday is the final day of campaigning in what is the closest and most unpredictable three-way election in decades, the last day to energize voters and send a message. And yet, when I arrived an hour before the rally was to begin, the broad, green Western Lawns along King Edward's Parade were nearly devoid of people.

There were a couple of television trucks along the street and a few police in evidence. On the lawn, a handful of volunteers were hastily blowing up yellow balloons, which they tied to the steel barriers that marked off the area from which Clegg would speak.

That was the extent of the stagecraft. There was, in fact, no stage to speak of -- just a small platform with a crate set on top of it. No backdrop, no big signs, nothing else. As people arrived, they were handed placards. "You can make a difference," said one. "I agree with Nick," said the other.

In the United States, the closing days of a presidential election are filled with events that can draw thousands, even tens of thousands of people. In the final weeks of his presidential campaign in 2008, Barack Obama drew 100,000 people in both Denver and St. Louis. John McCain and Sarah Palin drew crowds in the thousands.

In Eastbourne, Clegg drew at best only a couple of hundred. Bob Beatty, a political scientist from Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., who was here to observe the election, said the crowd barely compared with one that a U.S. presidential candidate might encounter in the earliest days of the Iowa caucuses.

The entire staging spoke of the contrast between American and British politics. Clegg arrived by auto; his "battle bus," as the campaign buses are called here, arrived a few minutes earlier.

He was given a big cheer as he arrived and as he made his way along the short runway to the platform. But there was no music, not even an introduction of the candidate. No local party leaders warmed up the crowd. Clegg simply hopped up on the platform and started speaking.

Obama would often speak for 30 or 45 minutes. Clegg's prepared remarks lasted little more than six minutes. His closing argument was a clarion call for change, but what was most striking was the reserve of the polite audience. Though they whooped at his arrival and when he finished, his best lines were greeted with virtual silence.

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