Silly season in Great Britain turns political


LONDON -- Britain has slipped seamlessly from the silly season to the political season with a huge increase in chatter but no noticeable decline in farce.

The third-party Liberal Democrats opened the season and set the tone with cries of up with marijuana and down with the monarchy.

The Labor Party meets today under the leadership of Tony Blair, a youthful barrister detractors call "Bambi." He'll be trying to take his followers from working-class socialism to middle-class electability.

The Conservative Party holds its conference in two weeks, dragging its baggage of recent sex and money scandals and still led by the post-Thatcherite prime minister, John Major, whose finest quality seems to be a dogged ability to survive humiliation.

The parties are jockeying for position for a general election that won't come for at least nine months and might not be held until nearly two years from now. The ruling Conservatives will call the vote for when it suits them best.

"Historically," says Brendan O'Leary, an expert in government at the London School of Economics, "the Conservative Party conference was a rally, a show. By contrast the Labor Party conference was supposed to be about making policy.

"That's all changed," he says. "We now have a Labor Party conference as stage-managed as a Conservative Party conference. The key function these days is to project competent leadership.

"The Labor Party will be trying to do that this time around," he says. "And the Labor Party will be led for the first time by a male model, Tony Blair."

Mr. Blair, a tall, slim, 41-year-old lawyer with blue eyes and a telegenic grin, is universally regarded as boyishly handsome. Thus, by the way, the Bambi label hung on him by the Conservatives. But a Spectator magazine interviewer, Noreen Taylor, concluded he was "Bambi with teeth."

Mr. Blair will need teeth at the Labor conference to balance his baby-boomer liberal strategies and the left-wing, working-class, trade-union tradition in his party.

Mr. O'Leary and two colleagues, Tony Travers and Patrick Dunleavy, met last week with non-British journalists to talk about British politics and the conferences.

Mr. O'Leary says Labor has the problem of convincing British voters it's different and better than the Conservatives, with a policy that varies only "five degrees" from the Conservatives'.

"Voters have to ask themselves: Why shouldn't we vote for the real Conservatives?" he says.

The Conservatives go into their conference and the long run-up to an election far behind in opinion polls, but paradoxically in fairly good shape, says Mr. Dunleavy, an expert on voter behavior, "because they have finally got the business cycle right."

The economy is in good shape now and is expected to continue to grow through next year. When business is good, the experts say, Britons vote Conservative.

"Conservatives may be just about to discover that the light at the end of the tunnel does not belong to an oncoming train," says Mr. Travers.

Mr. Major also will benefit from his part in helping obtain a cease-fire from the Irish Republican Army in Northern Ireland.

"I think the Conservative leadership will be trying to portray John Major as a peacemaker, who has made no secret or underhanded deals," says Mr. O'Leary.

"He's a politician who is very good at eating his own words," he says. "That's exactly the kind of politician needed for these negotiations to be eventually successful."

Tony Travers says the Liberal Democratic Party had "a particularly disastrous party conference."

To the dismay of their leader, Paddy Ashdown, Young Liberal Democrats raised a debate on marijuana and on the monarchy for the first time at any British party conference. The delegates adopted a minimum wage plank and supported birth control aid for girls as young as 11.

"In terms of attracting young people," Mr. Travers says, "it probably was quite helpful -- in raising issues considered to be untouchable by the mainstream parties."

"I think the leadership reaction shows their profound muddle," he says, ". . . not knowing [whether] they were the good old-fashioned Liberals who were the repository of interesting thought, radicalism, but with no chance of getting into power -- or [a party] that believes it has the potential for coming into power."

The Liberals have an 18 percent share of the good intentions of voters, not so far behind the Conservatives' 25 percent. Both together don't match Labor's 52 percent. But any election is a long way off.

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