On Mar. 21, British Conservative leader Michael Howard visited a site east of London where, to the chagrin of local residents, a band of nomadic Irish Travellers has settled illegally. His purpose: To launch a Tory effort to crack down on such unauthorized settlements. "People claim it's racist to raise this issue," Howard declared later at a press conference. "It has nothing to do with race. It's about standing up for the right values."
Any day now, Prime Minister Tony Blair is expected to call a general election for early May. The race is revving up, and Howard's visit to the Travellers (a group that prefers this term to Gypsies) reflects a key shift in British campaign tactics. Under Blair, the centrist winner of two landslides, the stark distinctions between Left and Right that dominated British politics for decades have faded. Now, with little separating the major parties on economic or foreign policy, debate is shifting to issues that stir emotion and win TV coverage.
Howard is taking a lesson from President George W. Bush's emphasis on social issues. The Tory leader watched Bush ride concerns about religion, abortion rights, and gay marriage to an election victory last fall. Howard is hoping to do the same by playing on Britons' fear of being swamped by asylum-seekers and other immigrants, and on their worries about crime. Howard is also appealing to longstanding concerns that Britain will lose its identity to an intrusive European Union.
For a taste of Howard's tactics, visit the Conservative Party Web site (conservatives.com): A display flips between pictures of a demonically smiling Blair and a pious-looking Howard. Blair, the captions say, favors "unlimited, uncontrolled immigration," while Howard, the son of Jewish immigrants, is for "limited, controlled immigration." The Tory boss wants to put an annual quota on immigrants, process asylum-seekers abroad, and subject some newcomers to HIV tests. Such tactics are credited to Howard's new adviser, Lynton Crosby, an Australian guru who played a key role in the bruising and successful campaigns of Australian Prime Minister John Howard.
Polls show that the Tory leader's appeal to Britons' anxiety and nationalism is working. A survey by YouGov Ltd. taken on Mar. 21-24, after the Traveller-camp visit, showed that Labour's lead over the Conservatives slipped from six points in February to just one point, 35% to 34%. "The Tories are tapping into some deep-seated sentiments. A lot of people would like to pull up the drawbridge and lock the door," says Peter Kellner, YouGov's chairman.
Will drawbridge politics put Howard over the top? Britain's political districting still heavily favors Labour, so most pollsters think Blair will win -- although with a reduced parliamentary majority from the present 161. A fight over Howard's move to dump a party official, who was secretly recorded saying a Tory government would cut spending more than Howard has publicly said, could also damage the Conservatives.
Still, Howard's forays into values-based politics could have lasting influence. That worries analysts like Kellner, who thinks emotional issues may edge out the substantive debate that still prevails in British politics. Howard has already pushed Blair into promising a points system to gauge the economic value of potential immigrants. The question is how far Howard and Blair will let the politics of fear go.
By Stanley Reed in London
Edited by Rose Brady