London — The dramatic split in the opposition Labour Party here, made formal March 2, means a new center-right political party for Britain. Not since 1930, when Ramsay McDonald walked out of Labour to join a coalition government dominated by the Conservatives, have Labour ranks been so divided.
On March 2, 10 Labour members of Parliament resigned from the party, joining two who had gone before them. Nine Labour peers, including two former Cabinet miniters, also fromally left the party.
Before Easter, April 19, the four prominent Labour dissidents, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, and William Rodgers, plan to form a social democratic party, designed to appeal to a mass audience of voters unhappy with both the newly powerful far left of the Labour Party and the center-right of Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government. They believe the Labour Party has swung so far to the left in the last two years that is no longer the party they joined many years ago.
The new party will give Britain roughly the same kind of social democratic grouping that has existed for decades in France, West Germany, and other European countries. It will essentially take a moderate socialist approach on the need for a mixed economy, wage ceilings, a strong welfare state, and equality for women.
Ironically, the move comes here as the left in Europe as a whole is going through a period of troubles. Social Democrats are under fire in West Germany, and Socialists and Communists are battling in France, Italy, and Spain, as voters look more to the center and the right for answers to inflation and recession.
Still unknown, however, is whether the new party can really dent the voter support of the two main parties. Polls so far show considerable support for the breakways, but political insiders warn that "it is early days yet," as the first-past-the-post electoral system here works against small parties in general.
Of the 635 seats in the House of Commons, Labour seats have been reduced to 255. Mrs. Thatcher's Conservatives stay unchanged at 377. The new Social Democrats have 12 seats, the Liberal 11.
One immediate beneficiary of Labour's internal strife is Prime Minister Thacter. She now sees Labour leader Michael Foot so beset with infighting that he is unable to mount strong opposition to her economic policies in Parliament.
The Labour breakways led -- by Mrs. Williams (former education minister), Dr. Owen (former foreign secretary), and Mr. Jenkins (former chancellor of the Exchequer and home secretary) -- have not yet defined a sharply edged program.
Speaking largely in generalities, they say they are opposed to isolationism. They favor govrnment policies that would end mass unemployment (up by 1 million in the last year to 2.4 million, a postwar record). They talk of more decentralized government and better services. They all believe Britain must stay in the European Community.
Mrs. Williams, Dr. Owen, Mr. Jenkins, and Mr. Rodgers (a former transport minister and shadow cabinet spokesman on defense) say they have been buoyed by public support for the center-right stand and claim more than 25,000 messages support. They cite a Times of London poll showing support for a coalition between themselves and the Liberal Party growing from 23 to 39 percent in the past year.
Dr. owen, leading the new party's tactics in Parliament, is negotiating with Liberal leader David Steel to form a common front opening a new page in British political history. Said Mr. Steel on cooperation in parliament: "The prize for an effective Liberal-Social Dem ocratic alliance is enormous."