In UK election, frugal Labour takes on rich Tories

LONDON (AP) — This British election isn't just about policies — it's also about the haves and have-nots in a glitzy campaign.

After 13 years in power, Prime Minister Gordon Brown's Labour Party has struggled financially and is fighting the campaign frugally. Brown has used a bus or train for many of his campaign stops while billboards bearing party slogans or messages are almost nowhere to be found.

The opposition Conservatives, meanwhile, have proven to have the deepest pockets — thanks to their ties to business and wealthy individual donors.

The party is expected to spend some 19 million pounds (US$30 million) on the campaign — flying on a private plane, erecting costly billboards, splashing out on a hardbound manifesto, and wooing journalists with croissants and other tasty food.

Labour, which has suffered a slump in donations, is believed to be working with between 8 million and 10 million pounds (US$12 million to $15 million).

"All the money in the world won't win an election, but a lack of funds can cost you an election," said Lynton Crosby, a strategist who ran London Mayor Boris Johnson's successful run in 2008 as well as campaigns for former Australian Prime Minister John Howard.

Election finance in Britain isn't the hugely expensive undertaking that has been the hallmark of U.S. campaigns. There are strict limits on spending — the cap is set to some 19 million pounds (US$30 million), the same amount the Tories plan on using.

Compared with the hundreds of millions raised and spent in U.S. campaigns, the figures seem paltry. But Britain is a smaller country, both in terms of size and population, and the campaign lasts just weeks. Another major factor is a ban on expensive television and radio advertising.

Instead of reaching voters through their televisions, British candidates need to make direct contact, Crosby said. That may be cheaper, but it's still not free.

"Advertising costs money. Direct mail costs money. Even making phone calls costs money," he said.

For the Conservatives, a visible part of their advertising spend has been on a poster campaign. Instead of their party leader David Cameron, some feature a smiling Brown alongside slogans like, "I let 80,000 criminals out early — vote for me" and "I took billions from pensions — vote for me."

Labour ran a create-your-own poster contest — eliciting designs from the party faithful — but it hasn't been a large part of their campaign.

"When you're tight, and haven't got as much money as you'd like, the thing that goes is the poster campaign, because it's not essential," said Matthew Taylor, a former Labour party strategist. Instead, he said, parties spend their money on things like leaflets, canvassing, and even getting the leader to districts.

Research shows that in Britain, meeting voters is essential.

"People tend to respond to more traditional forms of campaigning rather than modern ones," said Justin Fisher, a professor at London's Brunel University and expert on campaign financing. "If you're going to get votes, by and large people prefer to have a call on the door, rather than on the phone, and this is an area where spending more money won't yield benefits."

Labour fought the last three general elections with a similar-sized war chest to the Conservatives, experts say. But membership numbers have fallen along with donations from trade unions, Labour's traditional supporters.

"They haven't cut off all funding, but they haven't been very generous," said Patrick Dunleavy, a professor of political science at the London School of Economics.

And figures released this week by the Electoral Commission show the Conservatives have received nearly twice as much as Labour in donations through the first seven days of the campaign. They received 1,456,000 pounds (US$2.23 million) in donations compared to 783,000 pounds (US$1.2 million) for Labour. Nearly three-quarters of Labour's total came from unions, while many of the Conservatives' donations came from individuals.

Alan Sugar, a businessman best known for presiding over Britain's version of "The Apprentice" television show, added further to the Labour's accounts last week, just outside the reporting period, with a 400,000-pound (US$614,000) donation. He said he always waits until campaigns are under way to give, but experts think late donations may have a limited impact.

"There isn't much you can buy three weeks out," Fisher said. "Poster sites are booked."

He said some of the most effective campaign tools, like voter databases and direct mailing, need to be in place months ahead of an election, so late donations could go to servicing debt rather than paying for a new strategy.

The Conservative coffers, meanwhile, have also benefited from favorable polls over the past two years, making them an attractive target for donors who like the idea of backing a winner, Dunleavy said.

Their party machine has also produced slick events, such as the launch that featured their blue, clothbound manifesto. Crosby said the impressive staging wasn't over-the-top.

"It's absolutely essential an opposition looks competent and up to the job," he said. "It doesn't need to look like Hollywood, but it doesn't want to look so ragtag that people ask questions about ability.

"If you can't organize a manifesto launch, how are you going to run the country?"