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Image is (nearly) everything in British election

April 2, 1997
Web posted at: 2:30 p.m. EST

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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 media miracle.

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 is crucial.

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 not fear.

Blair "has all the values the opinion polls tell us that 1990s Britons want," says public relations consultant Colin Byrne.

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.

Debate doubtful


In both camps, the flow of words and images is finely adjusted, as reporters try -- sometimes in vain -- to nail down specifics.

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 scandals.

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.


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