London — The rapturous ovation the Conservatives gave Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the end of their recent party conference in Bournemouth marks an optimistic start to Britain's next general election campaign. The Conservatives gave every sign at their conference last week that they were raring to go for a third term in power after a disastrous and divisive summer.
The tactic was to plug all the credibility gaps on such sensitive issues as health, education, and the social services, and then unveil a range of major initiatives to show that the party, instead of running out of steam, was fired up to take a new lease on life.
Indeed, the overwhelming mood at all four of Britain's political party conferences this fall -- Labour, Social Democratic, Liberal, and Conservative -- was of the parties getting into high gear for an election that seems more probable next year than in 1988, when Mrs. Thatcher's second term of office expires. One advantage the ruling party has is that it is free to call an election, within its term of power, at the time of its choosing.
This particular election is expected to provide unmistakably clear choices for Britain -- not just over defense, which has become the single most controversial issue -- but over the kind of society British voters want.
Conservatives point to the new land of ``enterprise culture'' they say they have created, in which the rights of the individual are stressed. The government has urged private citizens to take more risks with their capital by buying stock in companies, particularly in denationalized ones, and has encouraged the conversion of rented public property to private home ownership.
The more socialist Labour Party wants to counter the capitalist thrust of the Thatcher government. This would be done by nationalizing some industries that the Conservatives recently ``privatized'' (put into public ownership) and by giving the state more say in increasing public services and reducing unemployment.
Standing squarely between them are the non-socialist alliance parties, the Liberals and Social Democrats, which choose a middle ground that rejects the ``extremism'' of the Conservatives and Labourites.
Labour and the alliance parties feel that after seven years, the public will tire of Thatcher, whom they characterize as uncaring and contributing to economic and political polarization between Britain's north and south.
Echoing these themes, the opposition Labour Party went away from its conference in Blackpool in good heart. After staggering out of the 1983 election so badly defeated that it had to find a new leader, Labour is offering not only a likeable and more modern leader in Neil Kinnock, but a party that is more solidly united than it has been in years.
The sense of unity that was palpable in the Winter Garden at Blackpool, and the ability of Labour now to sound more moderate and pragmatic, underscores the opposition's own seven-year itch. Labour says it is more than ready to become the ruling party again.
Labour's new unity also calls into question a prediction made at the Social Democratic Party's conference by party president Shirley Williams. Her suggestion that the Liberal-Social Democratic alliance would soon emerge as the major opposition force and that Labour would be consigned to the sidelines of British politics may have been a bit premature.
But the Social Democratic Party (SDP) can take comfort from having had a smoothly run conference and from distinguishing itself with the only major new reform introduced during this conference season. SDP's proposal was a simplified tax system that, by fusing tax and social benefits, would reduce inequalities of wealth.
Many of the gains of the SDP conference, however, were eroded by a disagreement that arose over reaching a common defense policy with the SDP's alliance partner, the Liberal Party. The feud has already cost the alliance dearly in terms of credibility, and its standing in opinion polls has dropped markedly.
There is a growing impression that unless and until the alliance can serve up a common, credible defense policy, the next election is very likely to return to the traditional political mold of a straight fight between two resurgent parties: the Conservatives and Labour.
Here, briefly, were the major issues that arose during the conference season. They are likely to provide the principal battleground for the next election.
Unemployment. This issue is generally regarded as the government's Achilles' heel. Unemployment continues to rise (now at 3.5 million), although the number of long-term unemployed appears to have peaked. Opposition parties favor more public expenditures to create employment and improve the country's infrastructure by rebuilding antiquated roads, bridges, and sewers.
The economy. Depending on what political lens you look through, the economy is either doing astonishingly well, or quite horrendously. The Conservatives trumpet record-low inflation (now at 3 percent) record-high investment, record-high productivity, and growth greater than the US's last year. Labour points to historic peaks in levels of unemployment and bankruptcies, the worst-ever balance of trade, and the low value of sterling.
Education, health, and social services. Recently, this is the area in which government has been most sensitive to criticism from its own supporters and to the charge of being uncaring from its opponents. Labour would increase social benefits substantially. The government defends its health record in particular by saying it has taken on more doctors and nurses. More money was pledged for certain forms of surgical operations.
Defense. This is the one issue that has put the government on the offensive, claiming it is now the only party capable of defending Britain. Only the Conservatives are pledged to retain and strengthen Britain's independent nuclear deterrent.
Labour's unilateral nuclear disarmament policy and the alliance's inability to agree on a common defense policy are, as one Conservative Cabinet minister put it, ``an unexpected bonus.'' Some commentators are saying defense issues could win the next election for the Conservatives.