London — A hitherto dispirited and demoralized British Labour Party is starting to lift its head above the trenches. It even sniffs victory at the next general election, which are due by 1988. This is a far cry from 1983, when the party suffered one of its worst defeats at the hands of the Conservatives.
Even as recently as a year ago the party was racked by internal feuding and mired in the strike by Britain's coal miners -- a strike ruled by Arthur Scargill, their leftist leader, but only partially supported by union members. The Labour Party is closely aligned with Britain's trade union movement.
After last October's party conference in Blackpool, characterized by fractious debate and largely dominated by Mr. Scargill, many began writing off the Labour Party as minority opposition.
But today, not only has the party regained its status as the major opposition party, it is also running strongly ahead of the Conservatives, who have been beaten into third place in the polls behind the Social Democratic-Liberal Alliance.
To Larry Whitty, the new general secretary of the Labour Party, the 1983 general election was ``a real trauma for the party.'' But now he notes a marked turnabout in the party's fortunes.
``It's clear it's on course with a good chance of winning the next election with a majority,'' he says. Citing a recent poll which showed Labour leading with 38 percent, the Alliance with 32.5 percent, and the Conservatives trailing with 27.5 percent, Mr. Whitty was encouraged. ``We need at least 40 percent, but we are on the right track,'' he claims.
Since the end of the miners' strike, the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock, has begun a sustained process of consolidation. It has, significantly, succeeded in putting on a more united front, and has largely beaten off damaging, extreme left-wing challenges, with the exception of Scargill.
The electorally safer course of the Labour Party -- movement toward the political center -- is also evidenced in the trade-union movement with which the party is closely aligned.
According to a leading trade unionist, the union movement is ``now in a more central position. We're perceived as being less sectional than a year ago.''
Explaining Labour's more pragmatic position Whitty said, ``We're not promising everything the day after tomorrow when elected.'' The Labour Party has been haunted in the past by promising to cut unemployment substantially and then finding itself unable to deliver.
Labour has also softened its stand on such issues as nationalization of industry and the sale of council houses to those who have traditionally rented them. Council housing is publicly funded low-rent housing and has been a vital element of the Labour Party's social platform.
Labour is opposed to the Conservatives ``privatizing'' -- as one supporter put it -- ``everything that moves.'' But if in power, Labour would move cautiously on undoing what the government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has erected in the private sector.
In Whitty's words, there wouldn't be ``wholesale nationalization or renationalization.'' With so many Labour supporters now choosing to buy their previously rented council homes, the Labour Party has now been forced to comearound and accept the idea, at least in principle, while differing on how it would be carried out in practice.
Yet a more moderate or pragmatic ap-proach is not enough to explain Labour's upward move in the polls.
Some of the explanation lies in voter response to the present Conservative government which is giving out conflicting signals as to what it will do about issues such as public spending and pay restraint. In a move widely condemned as insensitive and ill-advised at a time when teachers are pressing for a wage increase, the government has announced pay increases of nearly 50 percent for ``top people'' in the civil service. The move, which undercuts the government's insistence on pay restraint, has infuria ted many Conservative members of Parliament since the increases in some cases exceed the total year's salary for many teachers.
Central to the Labour Party's election strategy as now seen will be unemployment, the economic competence of the government, cuts in social services, and Mrs. Thatcher's style of government, which will be interpreted as hectoring and divisive.
Kinnock is seen by many as an amiable, likeable politician, but many in his own party regard him as a lightweight, lacking the cut and thrust in debate Thatcher uses so effectively in the House of Commons.
The biggest shadow that hangs over him though is that of Arthur Scargill. Although defeated in the miner's strike he remains a formidable figure.
Although Kinnock has become bolder in denouncing Scargill's more extreme demands, such as amnesty for all dismissed miners, there is still a feeling that Kinnock cannot totally renounce him. Unless he does so, however, the Thatcher government will continue to welcome the Scargill factor as the most potent means of discrediting Kinnock's hopes of becoming prime minister.