British elections less money-driven than U.S. contests

LONDON — Now that Prime Minister Tony Blair has been returned to office, politics-watchers here can expect the usual round of soul-searching about how "Americanized" the campaigns have become, with their focus groups, targeted mailings and slick consultants.

But there are three huge differences between the British and U.S. election systems before which all other comparisons pale: time, television advertising and money.

By law and tradition, the British campaign season is short — just four weeks this year, compared with the roughly two-year U.S. presidential odyssey.

Also, paid radio and TV advertising, the kind that inundated the American airwaves for months leading up to last year's American election, is banned. In its place, broadcasters are required to provide a limited amount of free airtime for the major parties to run infomercials.

With no expensive TV ads, British elections aren't nearly as money-driven as American ones. In fact, Blair's Labor Party is expected to have spent less to win the chance to govern this rich and powerful country of 60 million people than the Republicans and Democrats spent fighting over the U.S. Senate seat in South Dakota last year.

Only $53 million spent

The final tally on spending in the 2005 British election is not yet available, but total spending by all parties and candidates in the 2001 race was about $53 million at today's exchange rate, according to the Electoral Commission. The 2005 figure is not expected to be much different.

By contrast, total spending on the presidential and congressional races of 2004 was about $4 billion, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political money. So the United States, with five times Britain's population, spends 75 times as much to pick its leaders.

Republicans and Democrats spent a total of $36 million in the South Dakota Senate race, the nation's most expensive, which ended in the defeat of former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle. The Labor Party spent about $22 million, at today's exchange rate, in 2001.

It's not that British politics has been free of money scandal. Until 2001, parties didn't even have to disclose their donors, something that has been happening in the United States since the 1970s. Britain introduced disclosure after an imbroglio in 1997, when an auto-racing magnate worried about tobacco-advertising legislation wrote a $1.89 million check to the Labor Party.

These days, you can browse major British contributors on the Web site of the Electoral Commission, Since there are no limits on giving, you'll see some big sums. It's not uncommon for a few rich people to give more than a million pounds ($1.89 million) apiece during a campaign season.

The public initially greeted this revelation with disquiet, said Justin Fisher, head of the politics department at London's Brunel University. But gradually, he said, journalists and citizens concluded that there really wasn't much to worry about. There is always the potential for shenanigans, but the much lower demand for money in the British system, coupled with the new disclosure rules, works against the kind of influence-buying routinely suspected in the United States.

Transparency mulled

"There are rather tight controls here," said Ken Ritchie, chief executive of the nonprofit Electoral Reform Society, "and so nobody worries hugely about where the money comes from, but perhaps there's a growing feeling that things need to be more transparent."

For example, the donations made in the final days of the campaign have yet to be published. One day before the election, the Times of London reported that one of Britain's richest financiers had given $600,000 — none of it yet disclosed — to pay the costs of the Australian political guru who was advising the Conservative campaign.

Could the United States move in the direction of the British system? It depends on whom you ask. An alliance of organizations has been pressing for years to get requirements that U.S. broadcasters agree to provide free media time for political candidates. They have gotten nowhere.

"There are very strong interests opposed to it, one of the strongest being the media," said Larry Noble, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics.

No free-speech provision

Moreover, it's not clear whether and to what extent the U.S. Constitution's free-speech provision allows the government to ban or restrict political advertising. Britain has no such provision.

Under Britain's parliamentary system, the leader doesn't stand for national election. But in the modern world, he campaigns as if he does, so that may be a distinction without a difference as far as money is concerned.

There is also a much different political culture in Britain, one of higher voter turnout, less pomp and more accessible leaders. Candidates lay out detailed party programs that are taken seriously (unlike U.S. party platforms), and regularly submit to a brand of adversarial questioning from opponents, journalists and the public that is seldom seen in the United States.