British Labour Party puts its future on the line

Britain is in the throes of a political change as momentous as anything since World War I. The chairman of the country's longtime minority third party, the Liberals, Roger Pincham, spoke at his party's annual conference just over a week ago of "a change in the British political system as profound as we have seen this century."

What may well be under way is an act of political hara-kiri in which the Labour Party is destroying itself as the main party of reform and progressive change in Britain's predominantly two-party political system. It acquired that role for itself, at the expense of the Liberals, after World War I -- at first falteringly, but in the aftermath of World War II unchallenged till now.

Experience shows that in successful democracies, political stability and social progress depend on government alternating between parties (or coalitions) representing reform and change on the one hand, and, on the other, consolidation. Or in other words, on ringing the changes at general elections between parties of the democratic left and the democratic right. Since World War I, those two parties in Britain have been respectively Labour and the Conservatives.

The Labour Party's act of political self-destruction may well have been no more than temporarily slowed down by the razor-thin defeat Sept. 27 of left-winger Anthony Wedgwood Benn in his bid to replace Denis Healey as the party's deputy leader. Tony Benn -- as he calls himself to enhance his plebeian appeal -- has been single-mindedly working from a modest start nearly a decade ago to capture the party for himself and the hard left. Now closer than ever to his goal, he is more likely to try harder than ever rather than give up in the wake of his latest and probably only temporary setback. Virtually simultaneous events in the political arena over the past year have produced an alternative in the wings to step into the role of the traditional British party of reform and change.It is the recently formed coalition of the Liberals and of the new Social Democratic Party (SDP).

The latter, like the Liberals with only a handful of MPs in the present Parliament, is made up of former Labour Party members who can no longer stomach the increasingly leftward swing of that party and the often undemocratic practices of Trotskyrites and other radicals who have crept into it at the grass roots. The SDP's most prominent leaders are Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins.

If the Liberal-SDP coalition -- now pledged to fight on a joint picket the next general election likely in two years' time -- has only relatively small representation in the present Parliament, its prospects for capturing the biggest share of the popular vote in that general election are rosy. The latest public opinion poll shows that if the election were held now, the Liberal-SDP coalition would get 44 percent of the vote, the Conservatives 27 percent, and Labour 27 percent.

Why the public disillusionment with the Conservatives, in power for the past two years under the purposeful Margaret Thatcher, as well as with the Labour Party in such open disarray? Because the public perception (in oversimplified terms) is that Mrs. Thatcher is taking her party too dogmatically to the right, just as under its present leader, Michael Foot, the Labour Party is being allowed to go too dogmatically to the left. It might be different for Mrs. Thatcher and her Conservatives if their program were perceived by the public to be working. But with unemployment higher than at any time since World War II -- approaching 3 million -- that is not the case.

Does this mean that the Liberal-SDP alliance will ride to eventual electoral victory by establishing itself as the party of the center? No, it can only triumph if it wrests from Labour the role of being the leading party of progressive change and reform, of being the dominant party of the democratic left -- yet a left that captures rather than alienates the shifting vote in the center. If the alliance is perceived as simply centrist, it will eventually be crushed between Labour, still in command of the left, and the Conservatives, whose durability as the party of the democratic right has been well proven over the past century and more.

The cast of characters in this drama is peculiarly British in its paradoxies. The symbols are:

Of the hard left, Tony Benn, a lord with an American wife who has renounced his title and popularized his family name, but is still unable completely to hide his elitist background and upbringing.

Of the hard right, Prime Minister Thatcher, a grocer's daughter who has groomed herself into being a perfect lady -- coiffure, pearls, upper-class accent and all -- acceptable as leader of Britain's traditional party of the titled aristocrats, millionaires, and public-school elite.

Yet so tough is she that she can fire from office in one swoop as being too "wet" (her word for soft or not right-wing enough) Winston Churchill's ennobled son-in-law, Lord Soames, gifted millionaire baronet Sir Ian Gilmour, and her party chairman, Lord Thorneycroft. Sir Ian's retort was British patrician sang-froid at its understated best: "It does no harm to throw the occasional man overboard -- but it doesn't do much good if you are steering full speed ahead for the rocks."

Of the ineffectiveness of the present Labour leadership, opposition leader Michael Foot, as rumpled as Mrs. Thatcher is band-box fresh, crisp and precise, scion of a distinguished family of West country gentry well versed in the Bible and long associated with progressive, even anti-establishment causes. He has a brother who is a lord, and his late brother was a knight. Yet despite this patrician background, he walked into the Kremlin earlier this month to meet President Brezhnev wearing an unpressed suit and a parka. Throughout the run-up to the Sept. 27 election of a deputy leader, Mr. Foot sat on the fence between Mr. Healey and Mr. Benn.

Of resistance within the Labour Party to the leftward swing, Denis Healey, one of the most tough-minded and tough-speaking members of the party, who ironically dabbled with communism in his early years. This writer heard him described privately some years ago by a Conservative minister as the best defense minister Britain had had since World War II.

Of the alternative offered by the Liberal-SDP alliance,

(1) Liberal Party leader David Steel, still in his early 40's, described in last week's London Economist, as "a true son of the Manse" -- i.e. Scottish Protestant clergyman's son -- "the complete politician, with one of the better political brains Britain has produced in this century. He never acts impulsively.He never acts on hunch."

(2) SDP-founder member Shirley Williams, daughter of economist Sir George Catlin and novelist Vera Brittain (whom US TV viewers of Masterpiece Theatre will know from "Testament of Youth") whose thumbnail sketch in a recent Economist reads "Unkempt and unpunctual but of star quality."

(3) SDP elder statesman Roy Jenkins, former president of the European Community commission and former Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, son of a coal miner, whose intellectual gifts have made him a best-selling biographer and turned him into a "witty, grand seigneur" to quote the Economist again.

All three of these members of the alliance already have considerable middle-class appeal. For one thing, they all speak with an educated accent -- always an important factor in class-conscious Britain. But that same accent could be for all of them a liability to be overcome when they address themselves to winning working-class votes and establishing themselves as effective leaders of a party truly representative of the democratic left.

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