The folks who call the political shots

August 29, 1996|By Richard Reeves

LONDON -- Lest you think the U.S. is the only democracy infested by dirty campaigning, focus groups, spin doctors and all that, be advised that the British are doing it, too. Last week, Prime Minister John Major announced that two of the dirty doctors were to be made life peers and sit in the House of Lords.

In the United States, of course, political pornographers get no titles. They have to settle for becoming rich.

The new barons of the realm are an advertising tycoon, Lord Maurice Saatchi, and the ruling Conservative Party's principal spinner, Lord John Gummer. Their latest achievement is a campaign to demonize -- literally -- Mr. Major's major opposition, Tony Blair, of the Labor Party. Billboards and newspaper advertisements show Mr. Blair with the glowing red eyes of a devil.

''New Labor, New Danger'' is the overall Conservative campaign to diminish Mr. Blair, a Clintonesque character who has maintained a huge lead over Mr. Major in national polls since he abandoned or denounced the socialist origins of ''Old Labor,'' the party of Britain's working class.

The ''new'' approach had been working extraordinarily well. After 18 years out of power, Labor's ratings have soared as the British economy has stalled in the past few years. Mr. Saatchi reportedly warned the prime minister to ''concentrate on destroying any peace of mind voters might have acquired about the Labor Party.''

His principal political operative, John Sharkey, put it this way: ''Politics is of low interest to people. That is why you cannot be positive. You have to address voters' fears. . . . Essentially you say, 'Vote Labor and all hell will break loose.' ''

British politicians probably do not need much help from across the Atlantic to invent their own down-and-dirty slogans and sound-bites, but they have learned a few tricks from the Americans. Mr. Saatchi has produced Conservative film clips obviously modeled on the Willie Horton commercials that Republicans used to soften up Michael Dukakis, the 1988 Democratic candidate for president. The Conservative versions imply that a Labor government would open the prisons, loosing murderers and rapists on innocent country villages.

Labor, in turn, has consulted with Democratic spinners in the United States. James Carville, President Clinton's campaign consultant, has convinced Mr. Blair's men that ''speed kills,'' persuading them that all attacks must be answered and rebutted immediately. So Labor has begun an ad campaign with the slogan, ''Same Old Tories, Same Old Lies.''

''People who live in the dark''

Those tactics have cracked, if not split, Mr. Blair's party. One of Labor's shadow ministers, an old Blair friend and member of Parliament named Clare Short, quit her position, denouncing his campaign consultants as ''people who live in the dark.'' In words that resonate all the way to the White House, she attacked the ''obsession with the media and focus groups.''

Mr. Blair, responding to Ms. Short, seemed to confirm what she was saying about him and what American commentators have been saying of President Clinton:

''I do remember something Clinton said, which is that there is no one more powerful in the world today than a member of a focus group. If you really want to change things and if you want to get listened to, that's where you want to be.''

So that is what it has come to. The real shadow Cabinets on both sides of the ocean are shifting groups of eight to 12 men and women paid to sit around a table and respond to the questions and directions of a psychologist or pseudo-psychologist -- with politicians and their spin doctors watching and listening on the other side of a one-way mirror.

Focus groups were created by psychiatrists during the 1950s. The real doctors thought they might learn something about new treatments by secretly watching the interaction of mental patients.

Oh! Of course. It was probably only a matter of time before politicians tried the same thing. Even George Orwell never imagined that the patients really would take over the asylum.

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Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 8/29/96

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