Image is (nearly) everything in British election
April 2, 1997
Web posted at: 2:30 p.m. EST
In this story:
From Correspondent Richard Blystone
LONDON (CNN) -- The British media say it will take a miracle
for Prime Minister John Major's Conservative Party to win a
fifth term in next month's election. What kind of miracle? A
Stories in newspapers or on television are important in
British politics because candidates can't buy TV time.
But when it comes creating an air of can-do competence, Major
has not had a good month image-wise.
A photo-op with a race car -- meant to suggest an image of
effortless mastery -- was a bust when the vehicle turned out
to have no wheels.
Even a curtain wouldn't cooperate, refusing to budge as the
prime minister tried to unveil a plaque.
To make matters worse, some voters have misinterpreted a
Conservative Party campaign poster showing a lion -- the
party symbol -- crying blood. People thought it was an attack
ad by the opposition Labor Party, even though the words "New
Labor, Euro Danger" appear prominently.
Labor Party campaigns of yesteryear had some folksy rough
edges. This year, however, party leader Tony Blair has a
campaign style that makes Labor comes off as refined,
streamlined and as fresh as only a party 18 years out of
power can look.
Good image + good slogan = victory?
In the most U.S.-like campaign Britain's ever had, the need
for both parties to create an easily understood slogan also
Billboards tell voters to pick the Conservative Party because
Major is the man to keep Britain's economy booming. The more
left-leaning opposition, meantime, tries to convey that Blair
is the architect of a "new" Labor Party that capitalists need
Blair "has all the values the opinion polls tell us that
1990s Britons want," says public relations consultant Colin
Strategist: Major must 'shock the electorate'
To challenge such a positive image, the Conservative Party
must "shock the electorate into realizing just what is at
risk," says Conservative strategist Shaun Woodward.
"You don't do that by giving people former Soviet-style news
broadcasts every night, telling them that production is up in
the factories," he told CNN, indicating Conservatives have to
make their case to the voters in a more compelling way.
But because the Conservatives lag in the polls, they've had
to resort to scare tactics, argues Labor strategist Peter
Mandelson. "The only thing they have to fight this election
on is fear, fear, fear, fear," he says.
In both camps, the flow of words and images is finely
adjusted, as reporters try -- sometimes in vain -- to nail
One solution would seem to be a head-on debate. Both men have
said they would welcome such a televised confrontation, but
it doesn't look likely.
The Conservatives want to dictate the terms, and the
Laborites don't really need it.
While television might be the ideal medium for the seemingly
unflappable John Major, his party can't escape an avalanche
of negative newspaper stories about coverups and sex
The Sun, a mass circulation tabloid, has already switched
allegiance, announcing its endorsement of Blair, and other
papers are looking for graceful ways to do the same.
"The whole mood of the press for the last two years has been
so anti-Major," observes Alan Rusbridger, editor of The
Guardian. The press has "treated him with absolute derision,
and I think that has set the context for this election."
In British politics, it seems, ridicule hits harder than
hatred and sticks faster.
Related sites:Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.
© 1997 Cable News Network, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.