Why Britain's Breakaway party moves out front

One of the best-known politicians in Britain accuses hard-line left-wing activists of driving thousands of people like herself out of the Labour Party and of trying to force Britain into isolationism aborad.

Shirley Williams, the trim and incisive former Labour Cabinet minister and a founder of the new social democratic party, cites details and holds up a sheaf of letters to back up her point.

In an interview in her tiny office between Victoria Station and Westminister, she said crisply, "People are writing to us from all over the country saying Labour has moved too far to the left. Swing voters are unhappy with Conservatives.

"The Trotskyites now form a separate party of their own inside Labour. They violate Clause 2 of the party constitution [which forbids any separate party inside the party].

"They have plenty of money -- a quarter of a million pounds [$565,000] from the acting profession and from abroad -- while the Labour Party is in debt. They have more than 60 paid organizers. The Labour Party itself has only about 70."

She and three prominent center-left colleagues were appalled as the far left successfully maneuvered to force through internal Labour Party votes last year in favor of pulling Britain out of the European Community without a referendum, and of giving up nuclear weapons.

In January this year, after the same far left stripped Labour members of Parliament of their traditional right to elect the party leader, Mrs. Williams and her collegues reluctantly walked out, in a storm of national headlines and debate.

The latest Gallup poll here gives the social democrats -- who will formally launch their party March 26 -- 36 percent support in alliance with the Liberal Party, against 22.5 percent for the Conservatives and 22 percent for Labour.

Mrs. Williams says such polls are unprecedented for a new party, though she concedes there are many hurdles ahead.

Not far away, in a House of Commons cafeteria, a bluff, shrewd Yorkshireman and former Cabinet colleague, Roy Hattersley, explained why he opposes Mrs. Williams's move.

He agreed the far left was strong now and that many less extreme members had left the Labour Party. But, jingling some small change in one hand, he went on:

"I believe they can be brought back. I have evidence they can be. They want to win the next election. The left had overplayed its hand. We can persuade enough sensile people inside the party to vote against it."

Considerably to the left of Mrs. Williams, he added: "Social democrats are ameliorators. They want to render like more tolerable. But democratic socialists, like me, want to change the nature of society."

Mr. Hattersley, a senior Labour figure and the party's shadow spokesman on home affairs, has gathered more than 100 of Labour's 255 members of Parliament into a Labour soliditary campaign to try to reestablish party unity from within.

Out in the suburbs, on the stage of a brickwalled, neon-lit trades union hall , stood the man who symbolizes for most voters here the extreme far left -- another former Labour minister, Anthony Wedgwood Benn.

Mr. Benn and the far left have succeeded, after years of trying, to dominate the party conference and many of its grass-roots constituency parties.

Both Mrs. Williams ("He is riding to power on the backs of the Trotskyites") and Mr. Hattersley ("power concentrated in one small section of the party") see him as dangerous.

Mr. Benn would not grant a formal interview, saying he did not want to dignify the social democrats by discussing them. He gives the same reply to the BBC and the British press, which he accuses of bias against him. But he invited me to the trades hall meeting (in Addlestone in Surrey), and he chatted informally both before and after.

From the stage, he insisted, "The real issue today is unemployment figures showing 2.4 million out of work. Trade unions estimate it at 3.4 million because many people don't register. That means 10 1/2 million people in Britain live in households dependent on social service payments.

"Don't worry about a Labour Split. This country won't be changed by four people searching their consciences [a reference to Mrs. Williams and her colleagues]."

Speaking before she and the others formally broke with the party March 2, he added: "I don't want to expel anyone. But if there are people on their way out, perhaps they could catch an early train."

A sellout audience of 300 laughed and applauded, held spellbound by his radical socialist ideas expounded in the accent and manner of an aristocrat. (Mr. Benn gave up the little of Viscount Stansgate to sit in the Commons years ago, and now prefers to be known simply as Tony Benn.)

A member of every Labour government since 1964, he added: "I have been converted to socialism in middle age after seeing the system from the Cabinet room. It doesn't work. It is up to the people to change it."

Among other steps, he advocate state takeover of all private schools, hospitals, and industry. While this is not likely to happen, his influence in the party rank and file is growing. Why?

Says the energetic Mr. Hattersley, in dark blue suit and black-gold tie: "A lot of people in their late 20s and early 30s have come into the Labour Party. They are unaligned, very far left, determined to take over. They support Tony Benn."

Other sources agree that hard-core Marxists, Trotskyites, and others attend grassroots meetings, wait until the moderates go home or fail to show up, and ram through coordinate motions on votes that are actually a minority of party members.

The far left, ruthless and well financed, has driven out prominent centrist intellectuals like as Mrs. Williams, leaving the traditional left like Mr. Hattersley to fight on.

Mrs. Williams's departure is a blow to men like Mr. Hattersley, especially as she was joined by former Foreign Secretary David Owen, former Transport Secretary William Rodgers, and skilled political strategist Roy Jenkins, a former chancellor of the Exchequer and home secretary.

The claim 30,000 letters of support since their breakway took shape in February, and many thousands of pounds in donations.

Dr. Owen is working out an alliance with the Liberal Party which is vital to social democratic hopes. Mr. Rodgers is helping from inside Parliament, where the dramatic defection of Conservative backbencher Chirstopher Brocklebank-Fowler March 16 has lifted social democratic strength in the House of Commons to 13 (plus nine peers in the House of Lords).

Mr. Jenkins, a former president of the European Community, currently out of Parliament, is overall strategist.

Mrs. Williams is the charismatic, popular figure who may emerge as party leader. She, too, is currently without a seat in Parliament. But observers like William Rees-Mogg, just retired as editor of The Times, see her as a possible prime minister.

"Many people see the Labour Party tied to the working class and the Conservatives to the upper class," Mr. Rees-Mogg said in a recent interview. "They think it's all been a fearful mess for too long. I think the social democrats are going to win."

Only one new party in modern British history has ever succeeded -- the Labour Party, formed in 1900. And it had to wait 24 years to gain power.

The first-past-the-post electoral system here favors the two main parties; proportional representation would help smaller ones. Historian Robert Skidelsky spoke for many when he wrote recently that under the present system, the social democrats could well win 25 percent of the votes -- but only 50 to 60 seats in the Commons.

Mrs. Williams says the two main parties could move back toward the center and squeeze her out.

For now, however, Labour is split. Labour leader Michael Foot has lost status and influence. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher no longer faces a powerful and united opposition in Parliament.

But her new taxes and spending cuts are unpopular. And there is at least a chance voters could turn away from Mrs. Thatcher and opf for Mrs. Williams at the next election -- due before the Conservatives' 5-year term expires in May, 1984.

Though short on detail, Mrs. Williams argued in our interview for continued British membership in Europe, for "genuine democracy," for women's rights, social welfare, and less class division and more compasssion in British life.

She may fail in the end. But with many voters unhappy with Mrs. Thatcher's stern monetarism as well as Labour's internal strife, Mrs. Williams offers an alternative -- for now, at least.

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