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

Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times' Web site at:

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.

But these severe limits on the parties and candidates have some subtle unanticipated effects. In America, conservative critics of campaign finance reform argue that limiting the amount that candidates can spend will shift power to the media to set the campaign agenda. The experience here suggests they are right. Since the British parties have such limited capacity to reach voters themselves-- and so little campaign time to do it--the media have much more power to set the terms of debate than in America. That means issues rise and fall largely at the whim of the press, whose attention span is as fleeting here as in the U.S.

Case in point: Just a week before election day, associations representing British school principals and surgeons released dire warnings about the state of the schools and hospitals. Blair was duly questioned about it the next morning, but the reports effectively vanished by the next day's news cycle, before most voters probably ever heard of them. In America, it's easy to imagine the opposition party pounding home those grim reports through weeks of television ads. Here, to a large extent, the parties can keep campaign arguments before the voters only as long as the press lets them.

The contrast is a reminder that while U.S.-style campaigns can distort and mislead, they can also crystallize choices for the electorate; the British experience ought to teach American reformers that constraining the political parties too tightly can mean not only less influence for special interests, but also less information for voters.

Politics, of course, reflects a country's social values. Everything else in America is bigger, louder and faster than in England, so it's no surprise that American campaigns revel in a sheer gaudy bombast absent here. The surprise is that British reserve shows not only the weaknesses, but also the unacknowledged strengths, of American excess.


Ronald Brownstein's column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times' Web site at:

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