Prime Minister Thatcher's Labour opposition is undergoing a splintering on the right similar to what President Reagan's Democratic opposition underwent on the left during the Kennedy campaign days. The question is whether the Thatcher forces will make the adjustments -- as the Reagan campaigners did -- to occupy enough of the center to take advantage of the opposition's own problems.
Otherwise, according to British polls, the center could become the preserve of Labour's "social democratic" defectors combined with Britain's third party, the Liberals, to defeat both left-leaning Labour and the incumbent Conservatives. Not that a social democratic- Liberal alliance has been attained. But a recent nationwide poll gave such an alliance 41 percent of the vote if parliamentary elections were held now, with Labour receiving 32 percent and Conservatives 25 percent.
It appears that Mrs. Thatcher has failed to give the public what it wants. But the sentiment could change when and if her policies pay off in the turnaround toward long-term economic stability which she promises for them.
Whether or not the Conservatives remain an inviting target, the turmoil in the opposition could have an eventually salutary effect on it. Not to press any American parallel too far, the Kennedy uprising, for all its leader's personal liabilities, did remind the Democratic Party of its traditional buoyancy and outreach. And the uprising by Shirley Williams and other long-time Labour Party stalwarts could have the effect of saving their party from going so far left as to lose touch with its broad constituency.Already party leader Michael Foot has sought to ameliorate the situation. For one thing, at a national executive meeting he helped get rid of a pending resolution to establish what Mrs. Williams described with proper contempt as a "loyalty oath" reminiscent of her student days in America when "McCarthyism" was riding high.
So far Mrs. Williams has refused to say the social democratic council set up by her and her colleagues will leave the Labour Party. She notes that left-wing groupings have long been tolerated within it. And there is the question of trying not to harm Labour candidates in local elections this spring.
But the social democrats' positions -- such as staying in the European Community and rejecting unilateral nuclear disarmament -- depart from emerging Labour policy in ways that could speak to a larger electorate. And, among alternatives to Thatcher views, they offer such proposals as an incomes policy (some form of wage restraint).
The temptation to form a party and then a coalition with the Liberals may be strong. Some Liberals are saying, in effect, "We already have one third party, let them simply join with us." But we doubt Mrs. Williams will become a Liberal. A founder of a new Social Democratic Party maybe.
The best outcome might be a Labour Party transformed and moderated by a near disaster -- and a Conservative Party put o n its mettle to compete afresh.