Conservatives, Labor cultivate competing young looks

July 23, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- Britain's two big political parties slipped into gear this week for a fast start toward a general election that may not come for nearly three years.

The Labor Party elected its youngest leader ever, 41-year-old Tony Blair, a bright, good-looking "democratic socialist" who admires President Clinton's campaign style and some of his politics.

Prime Minister John Major, looking to brace the sagging popularity of his Conservative government, shook up his Cabinet, replacing four ministers, reassigning others and bringing in younger, more dynamic people.

Mr. Major's so-called "soft-shoe shuffle" was an attempt to reinvigorate a flagging government, one that some call exhausted, and to establish unity where many people see division.

He may have to make more changes before the next general election to hone a team sharp enough to combat Mr. Blair, who could be the toughest opponent a Conservative prime minster has had to face in a generation.

"It is not four Cabinet ministers that should pay for the mistakes of 15 failed years," Mr. Blair said in accepting the leadership of the Labor Party. "It is the prime minister and the whole government with him."

Mr. Major's choice as the new Conservative Party chairman, Jeremy Hanley, counterattacked immediately, saying that Mr. Blair was "all style and no substance."

The ever-smiling, personable Mr. Blair is articulate, media savvy and sometimes dubbed the "Islington Man," a sort of post-yuppie 1990s liberal (in the American sense), as opposed to "Essex Man," the beer-swilling Conservative entrepreneur of the 1980s.

Mr. Blair and his wife, Cherie, 39, both lawyers, live with their three children in Islington, a semi-gentrified London borough with the social and economic mix of Baltimore's Federal Hill and South Baltimore.

Supporters and detractors alike say he's a kind of post-socialist Laborite who wants to move the party toward something like the American Democratic Party.

He has talked tough on crime. He advocates welfare reform. He would abolish the hereditary House of Lords.

He's more European-minded and less protectionist than most of his party. He supports a minimum wage and full employment, but not quite as much as some of his opponents. He believes more strongly in market economics and less in nationalization than do Labor Party traditionalists.

Critics have called him a "designer socialist." More friendly analysts says he's a "socialist modernizer."

At least two London tabloids carried stories with the identical headline: "The Clinton Clone." Both printed quotes by Mr. Blair that closely echo the president's words. Mr. Blair and his closest political ally, George Brown, have conferred with Mr. Clinton's campaign strategists in Washington.

In his acceptance speech, Mr. Blair dismissed right-left labels. But, in fact, both Labor and the Conservatives shifted toward the right. Mr. Blair moved Labor away from its left wing. Mr. Major eased toward the right wing of the Conservatives.

Observers here believe Mr. Major had to pacify Conservative right-wingers to save his job. Mr. Blair has to move his party toward the center to defeat Mr. Major.

Mr. Major has some formidable obstacles to overcome. In the last Gallup poll, taken in May, the Conservatives were nearly 26.4 points behind Labor. In fact, the Conservatives ended up third behind Paddy Ashdown's Liberal Democrats.

The poll showed that 79.5 percent disapproved of the government's record and that 74.3 percent were dissatisfied with Mr. Major as prime minister.

Mr. Major has time and an improving economy on his side. The election may not come until 1997. If Britain's economy has recovered -- nearly 3 million are unemployed now -- and people are back at work and living comfortably, Mr. Blair may have a hard time persuading them that he has something to offer that the Conservatives don't.

Neil Kinnock had a margin almost as big as Mr. Blair's when he lost to John Major in 1992.

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