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Wooing Britain's Middle Class - Clinton Style


Top officials of Britain's Labour Party have returned from last week's Democratic convention in Chicago with a message for their leader, Tony Blair: If you want to boost your chances of winning the coming general election, take a page (and preferably several) out of Bill Clinton's book.

A contingent headed by deputy leader John Prescott is recommending that the key to victory for Labour in the election - which must be called no later than spring of 1997 - is capturing Britain's crucial middle-class vote with policies keyed to family values, fiscal conservatism, and a tough line on law and order.

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Mr. Prescott says he and senior Labour colleagues went to Chicago with the aim of finding out how President Clinton's thinking was received at the convention and how it could best be projected to the electorate.

Anthony Howard, a seasoned British political commentator who attended the convention, says Blair has made "a huge political and emotional investment" in a Clinton victory on Nov. 5.

Blair's decision to send a team of top-level Labour politicians to Chicago was made amid signs that Prime Minister John Major's ruling Conservative Party is beginning to claw back support among members of the British middle class - its traditional reservoir of voting strength.

An Aug. 29 opinion survey for the London Times showed that for the first time in more than two years, the Conservatives and Labour are receiving equal support from the middle class, each with about 40 percent.

In 1994, soon after Blair was elected party leader, Labour had 48 percent of the middle class vote, compared with the Conservatives' 31 percent. The middle class accounts for about half the electorate.

The poll also showed economic optimism on the rise among middle-class voters and registered a dip in Blair's personal popularity rating.

The upswing in economic optimism appears to reflect falling unemployment figures, continuing low inflation, and recovery in the housing market that has been in the doldrums for three years or more.

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British political commentator Phillip Stephens notes that there are already close parallels between this year's Democratic Party platform and a draft manifesto issued by Blair two months ago. The emphasis in both documents, Mr. Stephens says, is "on opportunity and on matching rights with responsibilities."

Clinton and Blair have put the needs of children and the strengthening of family life high on their agendas, and both promise to replace what Blair calls "a culture of dependency" with the creation of job opportunities for people out of work.

There are two areas where Blair is unlikely to take his cues from Clinton and the Democrats. Labour is strongly opposed to capital punishment. And Blair is thought unlikely to propel his wife to the forefront in the coming campaign. Cherie Blair is a high-profile lawyer, and already there have been suggestions from the Conservatives that she is the driving force behind her husband.

Labour policy advisers indicate that Mrs. Blair may appear at party rallies but is unlikely to make speeches of the kind that Hillary Clinton delivered in Chicago.

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