Deepening rift mars Labour Party future

It was a significant moment as Terry Duffy, the moderate leader of Britain's second-largest union -- the engineers' -- approached the rostrum at the Labour Party's 79th annual conference.

The boos and hisses of the radical left, which has been increasingly in control of the Labour Party since its defeat by Mrs. thatcher's Conservatives 16 months ago, swelled ominously as he walked forward in Blackpool's Winter Garden Auditorium. Then, suddenly, a barrage of counter-applause from the often-silent right filled Blackpool's Winter Garden Auditorium.

At a crucial juncture in the history of Britain's chief opposition party, when mood may count for more than substance, that swell of applause was a clue to the key feature of this year's conference: the reawakening of the center-right. Commenting on it later, Mr. Duffy said what many nonradical voters must hope to be the case: "People are rallying."

Not everyone agrees. The party, most analysts feel, is fractured -- some think irretrievably -- by an internal left-right feud more serious than any since the early '30s.

Divisiveness is nothing new in a party renowned for its contentious, devil's-advocate style of argumentation (in contrast to the Conservatives' instinct for loyalty and party survival). Nor, in a party of hard-slugging orators, are personal animosities unknown.

But some fear that the rift is deeper than personalities or style and has gone beyond the power of compromise. At bottom it concerns a single issue: how far left is left?

In other words, how far can the radical left drive the increasingly vocal center-right before the latter splits off and forms a new social democratic party? How far can the Labour Party go toward wholesale socialism before it becomes unelectable by the masses of royalty-loving, homeowning Britons -- whose recent Labour governments have been rather benign supporters of a mixed economy?

Many wonder whether this year marks the beginning of a final battle. The party, they suggest, could return to moderate control, harden into unpopular radicalism, or split apart.

With party membership not much above 200,000 and with the big unions demanding more financial control if they are to bail out the party's $:800,000 debt, Labour may need the three years before the next general election to sort out its troubles.

Here is how the sides shape up:

* The left, under the charming ingenuity of Tony Benn, brings together grass-roots activists who control the party at the local level, militant trade unionists, and far-left parliamentarians.

Their power, organized at the conference by the so-called "card vote" allowing individual union leaders to cast thousands of votes at once, succeeded again this year in electing a solidly left majority to the party's 29-member National Executive Council (NEC).

They also slapped moderates by passing constitutional changes which required MP's to be reconfirmed as the choice of their local constituencies between elections and which shifted the right of electing party leaders from the Parliamentary Labour Party to an electoral college.

They committed the party to increased nationalization of industry, restrictions on exporting capital, selective import controls, and a 35-hour week with no loss of pay. More important, they called on the party to get Britain out of the European Community.

* The right, under the growing thrust of the three-year-old Campaign for Labour Victory, is calling on the silent majority to stand up. At the top is NEC member and former MP Shirley Williams, one of the so-called "gang of three" (with influential MPs William Rodgers and Dr. David Owen) who have announced their disaffection with what she calls "the fascism of the left."

She has threatened to leave the party over the European Community decision. Mr. Duffy, Frank Chapple, (leader of the electricians' union), and Bill sirs (leader of the steelworkers) are sympathetic to her views.

* The middle, under the olympian authority of party leader and former Prime Minister James Callaghan, is pleading for unity. Emerging from 16 months of "hibernation" (his word) to deliver an impressive round of Tony-bashing and avunvular advice, he lambasted the left for dwelling on the party's faults and the right for what he called the "mere fluff" of split-the-party talk.

"For pities" sake, stop arguing," he snapped at a heckler. "The public is crying out for unity." But his numerous references to global problems, and his addressing the party as "you" rather than "we" several times, raised to near-certainty the speculation that he will soon step down to take up, Willy Brandt-like, an internationalist career.

Who will step in? Most pundits here tip Denis healey, former chancellor of the exchequer, as Mr. Callaghan's handpicked successor. He was very quiet and very smiling during the conference, knowing that the radical left and even some moderates were not pleased with his economic policies in the past.

The present electoral process, despite the left's influence, will produce a moderate. And whoever succeeds Mr. Callaghan inherits something of a shambles. As the Tories head farther right, and as Mr. Benn wins rapturous applause for his plan to abolish the House of Lords and to re-nationalize industry within weeks of Labour's return to power, many worry that Britain still lacks a political home for its middle-of-the-roaders.

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