British parties shift into high gear for next election
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.