- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 23, 2005

LONDON — Prime Minister Tony Blair secretly has recruited a prominent American pollster in an attempt to position his governing Labor Party farther to the right ahead of elections expected this spring.

For the past few months, Mr. Blair has been taking direct advice from Mark Penn, a Washington-based strategist who helped mastermind the re-election of President Clinton in 1996.

The sessions have been kept secret from almost the entire Cabinet, and only a tiny circle of aides knows that Mr. Penn, 50, effectively has been made a key member of Labor’s election team.

His role will alarm many Labor activists and members of Parliament who oppose the drive by Mr. Blair and his chief election adviser, Alan Milburn, to ensure that the party’s forthcoming manifesto will be “unremittingly New Labor.”

Mr. Penn won his reputation by advising Mr. Clinton to move on to Republican territory by putting out strong messages on crime and the economy, and ignoring the concerns of left-leaning Democrats.

Since the late 1990s, he has built up a powerful consulting firm in Washington, whose clients have included American Express, BP Amoco PLC, Coca-Cola, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald’s, Nike and Pizza Hut.

At least three of the companies on Penn, Schoen & Berland Associates’ client list — Hilton International, Marriott International and Mirage Resorts — have close links to the casino industry, which has prompted attacks on Labor because of its attempts to liberalize British gambling laws.

Government officials said Mr. Penn has flown in at least once a month since last fall for top-secret personal meetings with Mr. Blair.

His growing influence will be a blow to Lord Philip Gould, the prime minister’s personal pollster, whose focus group findings have been the driving force behind Labor policies since Mr. Blair became leader in 1994.

Mr. Blair provided more evidence of his determination to move on to traditional Conservative territory in a speech to Labor’s National Policy Forum in London on Saturday, setting out his vision for future policy on crime, national security and market-based reforms of schools and the National Health Service.

“We only win in the center ground of politics as a moderate-progressive Labor Party in touch with the modern world, letting no vested interest, no political correctness, no outdated thinking stand in the way of the hardworking families we serve,” Mr. Blair said.

The prime minister said Labor would contest the forthcoming election, which is expected in May, on its record of economic stability, while adopting a tough stance on defense and law and order.

He dismissed criticisms, which have been leveled from inside his own ranks, that this marked a move away from Labor’s traditional values.

“This is not some warmed-up neo-Thatcherism or an uncertain drift into splitting the difference,” he said. “It is the most successful era of progressive change that this party has achieved since the 1945 government emerged from the ashes of World War II.”

Alan Simpson, a left-leaning Labor member of Parliament, derided Mr. Blair’s recruitment of Mr. Penn, however, and called on the party to “make itself acceptable to a broader cross section of British society.”

“My impression is that this kid from the casinos will turn out to be an expensive mistake,” Mr. Simpson added.

Mr. Penn has had a checkered career as a pollster.

Penn, Schoen & Berland was criticized during a 2004 presidential referendum in Venezuela after the firm put out an exit poll, before voting was officially over, claiming President Hugo Chavez was set to be rejected by voters.

As it turned out, he was backed by a large majority.

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