Why does 30 percent of the British electorate favor a new political party? And what choice would it offer Britons that they don't have now? The short answer is that the Conservatives in power and the Labourites out of power have disappointed many of their adherents. And the proposed new Social Democratic Party is seen as offering a left-of-center alternative more in tune with present British needs than the existing "third party," the Liberal Party, has proved to be.
Yet the Social Democrats face an uphill struggle even if they should join with the Liberals in an alliance similar to the "Lib-Lab Pac" between Labour and the Liberals a few years ago. To be sure, if a general election were held today , according to a recent poll, some 40 percent of the national vote would go to an alliance of Social Democrats and Liberals.But the staying power of the major parties should not be underestimated. Anyway, as another step was taken this week toward forming a Social Democratic Party, it was not yet clear how far its defecting Labourite founders would go in negotiations with the Liberals. As it is, the 12 Members of Parliament who resigned from Labour surpass the Liberals' 11 seats to become, in effect, the third parliamentary party.
Viewed from abroad, events seem to be moving even faster than anticipated when the Labour Party was split over internal voting procedures reducing the influence of elected legislators and over leftward changes of policy hostile to NATO and the European Community. It had appeared that the right-wing dissidents contemplating a new party did not want to risk embarrassing Labour candidates in local elections due in May. Perhaps now they calculate that the momentum is worth the risk. At any rate, the leaders of the Social Democratic movement say they will have the machinery for the new party ready by Easter and will start right in on a nationwide campaign.
Not unexpectedly the parliamentary 12 have been challenged by Labourites to resign their seats on grounds they were elected as members of the party they have left. To this the emerging Social Democrats say that, on the contrary, it was Labour that left them.
It is an understandable view, since no one is more prominent among them than former party and government official Shirley Williams -- and no one was a stauncher supporter of Labour as it used to be. She has finally given up the struggle of trying to work from within against what she sees as the party's shift from democratic socialism.
Apart from the immediate headline issues, what would such a Social Democrat offer the British people as long-term goals? A couple of years ago Mrs. Williams spoke of such challenges as keeping up the drive toward a fairer and more equal society, with increased reliance on the voluntary sector; achieving a greater degree of equality between the rich and poor nations, with recognition of the influence on this exerted by a society's attitude toward race within its own borders; providing jobs for workers likely to be put out of work by technological advance, with perhaps more emphasis on employment through recycling products such as automobiles by repairing rather than junking them.
Basically she has favored getting away from concentrations of power, whether public or private. Naturally she resisted the increasing control turned over to trade unions in the Labour Party. She looks toward industrial democracy, including cooperative movements, tenants' associations, parent-teacher groups. She looks toward educational systems that are more comprehensive as opposed to elitist.
No doubt the Social Democrats' first order of business will be to convince the electorate they offer better specific alternatives to Conservative economic policies than their old Labour Party. But British voters will have to look farther ahead, too, as they decide whether to add -- or subtract? -- a party in that historic House of Commons whose very structure symbolizes the two-party system.