London — Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition has taken a significant lurch to the left with the election of white-haired, goldenthe left with the election of white-haired, golden-tongued Michael Foot as the leader of Britain's labour party.
In a hard-fought election among the 268 Labour members of the House of Commons Mr. Foot beat denis healey, the former fInance minister, by 10 votes. Mr. Healey, the favorite of the party's center and right, had also been the choice of the retiring Labour leader James Callaghan.
The Nov. 10 election was a runoff between two men who espouse widely different views of socialism's role in Britain. Mr. Foot favors a voluntary income policy and increased nationalization of industry and the banks. A longtime proponent of unilateral diarmament, he wants to send Britain's cruise missiles back to America, reduce its commitment to NATO, and work toward withdrawal from the European Community (EC).
"The Labour Party will sound the alarm about the arms race, the most dangerous arms race we have seen in world history," Mr. Foot said after his election, adding, "We believe we have a mission to perform there."
These views contrast sharply with the more moderate mixed-economy and pro-European approach of Mr. Healey, who would have carried forward something of the legacy of the Callaghan years.
An equally significant contrast is in style. Mr. Healey, who shoots from the hip, is not known to suffer fools gladly. He offended many members of Parliament during his tenure as finance minister in the last Cabinet.
Mr. Foot, on the other hand, is seen as a healer. Many feel he would be better at soothing the right than Mr. Healey would have been at bending leftward.
Since Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's election in May 1979, Labour Party has suffered 18 months of bruising recrimination between its right and left wings. The vote, a cliffhanger until the very end, suggests that the threat of a split between the two wings, now openly discussed, is seen from within the party as the issue most needing attention.
The relatively narrow margin of victory means the struggle for leadership is not over. Mr. Healey is felt by many to be the favorite among Labour voters at large -- in other words, to be the best candidate for prime minister should there be a change of government.
Mr. Foot, while strong in his party, is not seen to have such broad backing. As a result he is viewed by many (although not by himself) as a temporary leader who ought to step down before the next general election.
But some observers feel that even a lack of popular support will not necessarily keep him from the highest office in the land. British elections are pegged much less to personalities than American ones, they say. If the Conservative government fails miserably and a "throw-the-bums-out" mentality prevails, the next general election could see a rush to Labour irrespective of the individual at the top -- and irrespective of how far left the party platform has drifted.