British parties polish images

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Britain's two dominant political parties are battling to improve their public appeal before an expected general election sometime within the next two years. But they are using sharply different methods to polish their respective images with the electorate.

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher this week ordered a reshuffle of her Cabinet, putting emphasis on education and protection of the environment. She dropped Sir Keith Joseph, education and science secretary for the past five years, replacing him with the much younger Kenneth Baker, a liberal Conservative. And she replaced Mr. Baker, who had been environment secretary, with Nicholas Ridley.

Mrs. Thatcher hopes these moves will provide a new starting point for the pursuit of votes -- at a time when her personal authority appears to be slipping and the opposition Labour Party is ahead of the ruling Conservatives in opinion polls. The latest poll gives Labour 39 percent, the Liberal-Social Democratic Alliance 30 percent, and Conservatives 28 percent.

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The appointment of Baker, in particular, is seen as vital: His predecessor, though a close friend of Thatcher, is widely regarded as having alienated teachers and created concern among many parents, who perceive the educational system to be deteriorating.

The Labour Party, meanwhile, is making a determined effort to rid itself of the reputation for being a divided political movement plagued by a rampant left wing. This week, Labour leader Neil Kinnock attended meetings at which members of a far-left group, called the Militant Tendency, were arraigned for deliberately breaking party rules. Mr. Kinnock believes that unless he confronts and defeats the Militant Tendency, he will be unable to pursuade voters that he is fully in charge of his own party.

Mr. Joseph's failure to do a good job in education persuaded Conservative Party insiders that, at the very least, in this highly sensitive policy area, a change was urgent.

Replacement Baker is believed to have accepted the education job only after receiving Thatcher's assurance that there would be plenty of money available in the future to spend on education.

As part of her attempt to change direction on education, Thatcher ordered increased spending next year on universities which for the past few years have seen heavy spending cuts.

Labour Party strategists admit Thatcher's choice of Baker for education was shrewd. But they say the decay in the school system has gone too far for him to be able to achieve a reversal in the short time before the next election.

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