The Blog


12:00 AM, Oct 14, 1996 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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Ban tobacco advertising and handguns. End welfare as we know it by getting people off the dole and into work. Educate our people so they can compete in the new global marketplace. Cut class size. Get tough on persistent young offenders. Keep a tight rein on public spending. Preserve old folks' benefits. Support Emily's list. Restore hope. A double-digit lead in the polls.

The Democratic convention in Chicago? Not exactly. Rather, the Labour party conference in Britain, a gathering of the rank and file to hear the leader of "New" Labour, Tony Blair, describe the policies he hopes will preserve his party's 15-20 point lead in the polls and return it to power after almost two decades in the wilderness. No more talk of socializing the means of production and distribution; no more talk of higher taxes (except perhaps on " millionaires") or of more spending; no more business bashing. New Labour is the party of frugal government. But compassionate. In short, it is Britain's version of Bill Clinton's New Democrats, a party devoted both to compassion and to budgetary probity.

The analogies with America are not happenstance. Start with the fact that Blair and Clinton are both the products of prestigious law schools, that both met their lawyer wives while training for careers neither man seriously intended to pursue, that both of those wives are leftish tough-minded women who hide their light under a bushel of homebaked cookies at campaign time, that both have fantasies of being rock musicians (sax for Clinton, electric guitar for Blair), that both understand that winning is the necessary precedent to accomplishing anything in politics, and that both are formidable and persuasive campaigners.

This is not to deny the differences between the two men. The president is a more or less confessed philanderer; the prime-minister-in-waiting is a genuinely devoted family man and devout Christian. The president tacks right, left, and then right again, depending on the latest polls; the Labour leader has maintained a courageous and steady rightward course to strip his party of its socialist history and loosen the ties that still bind it to the trade unions. The president has a compulsive need to be loved by anyone with whom he is at the moment in contact, whether it is an MTV audience that wants to hear him say a puff or two of dope is no big deal, or a group of conservative Texans who want to hear him say he made a mistake when he raised taxes; the Labour leader is willing to tell the leftists in his party that he will not adopt the red-intooth-and-claw socialism or tax-andspend policies that so many of them still prefer, and he does confront the trade unions with the fact that he will not let them dictate policy even if they do account for half of all the funds that finance his party. In the character race, Clinton comes in a distant second to Britain's wannabe prime minister.

But politics is not only, or perhaps even primarily, about the personal strengths and weaknesses of the leaders of parties. If it were, Bob Dole would be far ahead in the polls and Margaret Thatcher would still be PM. It is about winning elections, and about attempting to use those victories to shape a nation in the image of the victor. And Blair's people see in Clinton a winner worth emulating. In 1992, Blair and nowshadow chancellor Gordon Brown came to America to study the Clinton campaign. So did Philip Gould, Labour's chief pollster. Clinton's New Democrats, says London Times columnist Anthony Howard, "lighted the path" down which New Labour has since traveled.

So Blair traveled to Washington in April for a chat and a photo-op with the president, an important event for a young Labour leader eager to demonstrate to the folks at home the newfound respectability of his party. And deputy Labour leader John Prescott, personally far to the left of his boss but toeing Blair's line, attended the Democratic convention in Chicago at the invitation of his old friend, party chairman Chris Dodd, to act as host at a Labour party reception for the Democratic delegates. George Stephanopoulos is said to be the idol of Peter Mandelson, the Blair guru and spinmeister who is widely credited (and blamed, depending on which Labour delegate you speak to here in Blackpool) with converting Labour from a hard-left party doomed forever to be Her Majesty's loyal opposition into an electable left-of-center party that doesn't throw a fright into middle England. (Among other things, Mandelson replaced Labour's traditional party symbol, the red flag, with a far less threatening red rose.) And the Labour Women's Network, devoted to increasing the number of women -- well, Labour women -- in Parliament, has set up Emily's List UK, unashamedly poaching the name and techniques of its American progenitor.