London — Britain's Labour Party, already suffering the wounds of a power struggle between its radical and moderate wings, has entered a fresh phase of self-laceration.
Tony Benn, darling of the left, has announced that he will seek the deputy leadership at the party conference in the fall. His target will be Denis Healey , the present deputy leader and the man regarded as the most forceful exponent of a moderate Labour line.
Benn's challenge to Healey immediately threw the party into disarray, with Labour moderates openly accusing the left-wing leader of ensuring that the next six months will be a period of bitter and damaging recrimination within the Labour movement.
Sources close to the Labour Party leader, Michael Foot, say he received no warning of Benn's declaration. Foot swiftly issued an appeal to Benn to drop his challenge.
Foot now faces an open struggle between two party heavyweights who have little liking for each other and differ sharply in style and ideological conviction. The development is widely reckoned as certain to reduce public esteem for the Labour Party and boost support for the Conservative Party and the newly launched Social Democrats.
Launching his bid for the deputy leadership, Benn said he was not doing so out of ambition for himself but to make the Labour Party decide what kind of party it is.
He plans to campaign on a platform calling for measures to combat unemployment, expand the public services, abolish the House of Lords, take Britain out of the European Community, and abandon nuclear weapons.
This radical package is designed to build up Benn's support among Labour Party members in the constituencies and the larger radically led trade unions. He apparently believes that with some of the party's leading right-wingers having left and formed the Social Democratic Party, Healey is rather isolated as an advocate of moderate policies.
By wide consent, however, Benn is playing a risky game. The majority of Labour members of Parliament oppose his open challenge to Healey, and the mood of some of the larger trade unions is uncertain.
But Mr. Benn in one sense had little choice but to make a challenge now. At its fall conference, Labour is thought likely to change once again its rules for electing the leader and deputy leader.
At a special conference earlier this year, the party decided to allow the trade unions and constituency groups to share the election process with Labour MPs.
Benn is counting on being able to turn this system to his advantage before any attempt is made to alter it. He reckons that a combination of trade union and constituency votes will be enough to defeat Healey, whose main strength li es in the House of Commons.