Post-election Britain: Who shall be second? Labourites' defeat after strong campaign shows how serious their problems are

IN the days immediately preceding the June 11 vote in Britain's general election, most pundits had decided that the Labour Party and its leader, Neil Kinnock, had enjoyed a wonderful campaign. Labour had done almost everything right - from restoring party morale to presenting slick campaign commercials - while the Conservatives and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had often stumbled. The sense that Labour was gaining extended beyond the press and Labour Party officials - and, indeed, was shared by many in the Conservative Central Office at 32 Smith Square, where quiet panic had set in. The actual results of the balloting were greeted, then, with nearly universal surprise. The supposedly stumbling Conservatives emerged with 375 seats - down just 17 from their '83 total, which is their modern record - a majority of 101 over all the other parties combined and 146 over Labour. Their share of the popular vote dropped just 0.1 percent. The supposedly surging Labour Party of 1987 and its dynamic leader have been beaten almost as badly in total seats and vote share as had the dispirited 1983 Labour Party and its widely criticized then-leader, Michael Foot.

If the party's campaign had gone so wonderfully, asked Arthur Scargill, the hard-left miners' leader, then why had Labour lost so badly? His own answer was that technical campaign virtuosity could not make up for a fundamental deficiency in the policies Labour proclaimed. The party had watered down its proper militant socialist vision. Mr. Kinnock's call to socialism was so eviscerated that it could not rally the working class against Thatcherism.

From very different points on Britain's political continuum, and to sharply opposing conclusions, other political figures have argued a position resembling Mr. Scargill's in one basic regard: that the struggle over what will be the policy direction of the country's second major party - the main governing alternative to the Conservatives - is the decisive event in contemporary British politics. Against this background and such stakes, more routine matters of campaign style and performance pale. David Owen, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins, and Bill Rodgers - the famous ``gang of four'' - broke with Labour in 1981 to found the Social Democrats (SDP). They saw trends in Labour's evolution that they believed were rendering it at once unsuited to and incapable of governing modern Britain. Among these trends were the growing lack of fit between any bona fide socialism and the needs of an advanced or postindustrial society; and the increasing strength of hard-left activists who were anti-NATO and pro-nuclear disarmament in their foreign policy, wedded to doctrinaire collectivism domestically, and at times plainly uncomfortable with the traditions and values of liberal democracy. The gang of four felt that Britain needed as its primary alternative a modern reformist social democratic party, closer to the Democratic Party in the United States than to the Labour Party of the 1980s.

The Alliance of the SDP and the Liberal Party has now waged two national campaigns, winning 26 percent of the popular vote in 1983 and 23 percent this year. Unfortunately for them, Britain's system of single-member districts and simple majorities continues to yield a two-party House of Commons (with the Conservatives and Labour holding 604 of the 650 seats, the Alliance just 22). Each 1 percent of the national vote won by the Conservatives this year was translated into about 9 Conservative seats in the Commons, while each 1 percent by Labour produced 7.5 seats. In contrast, each 1 percent won by the Alliance nationally was translated into just one House of Commons victory. Even with these odds and the vulnerability to the charge that an Alliance vote is largely wasted, Alliance leaders began this year's campaign hoping they could win symbolically by surpassing Labour in the popular vote totals. With other analysts, they believed this might well speed Labour's disintegration. Here the Alliance failed: Just two percentage points behind Labour in popular votes in 1983, it fell eight points back this time.

That a curious hybrid of two distinct parties, one very old, the other very new, operating within an electoral system whose biases are decidedly against it, has not yet succeeded, in a six-year life span, in displacing Labour as Britain's No. 2 party, hardly indicates that the judgment that led the SDP to break away and join with the Liberals was wrong. The talk after the June 11 vote centered on Mrs. Thatcher's triumph and the Alliance's failure. The former is undoubted, but the latter claim is likely to be proved decidedly premature. The great failure in the 1987 voting was Labour's. The full dimensions of its defeat are even more devastating than those of 1983.

First, the fact is that Neil Kinnock is an exceptionally able politician. He and his party did run an excellent campaign, one that emphasized Kinnock's attractive personal attributes so as to deflect attention from the party's policies and divisions. The 1983 campaign had been a disaster, but this one was not. In contrast, the Conservative campaign was really unimaginative and even slighly incoherent. While Margaret Thatcher is a truly formidable personality and may be recorded as one of the great leaders inBritish history, she is not a good politician.She lacks the ease and natural good humorthat Britishers, like Americans, desire intheir politicians. Thatcher is simply not very likable - though from many perspectives she is admirable. For Labour to trail its opponents by 146 seats after having enjoyed a clear campaign edge over them in the nonsubstantive side of things is quite something; it indicates just how massive Labour's policy problems have become.

Second, Labour came even closer in 1987 than it had in 1983 to being pushed right out of the southern half of England. The Conservatives led Labour by 51 to 16 percent in the southwest, by 56 to 17 percent in the southeast, and by 52 to 22 percent in East Anglia. In these areas the Alliance, not Labour, is the No. 2 party. In Greater London, the Conservatives widened their lead over Labour to 15 points in the popular vote and 58 to 23 in seats. Their margin is similarly large in both the West and East Midlands. Indeed, in all of England - where 83 percent of Britain's population lives - Labour shows real strength only in the most deprived urban areas. Such a base is simply insufficient for a major governing party.

Labour has been pushed back to England's declining cities and the ``Celtic fringes'' of Wales and, especially, Scotland. The latter was Labour's one clear success: It gained 42 percent of the Scottish vote and 50 seats, to just 24 percent and 10 seats for the Tories.

It is important to recognize that the sources of Labour strength and Conservative weakness are quite different in much of the Celtic fringes than in the troubled cities of northern England. Suggesting as some election analysts have that a simple economic relationship dominated the 1987 voting - with the ``affluent'' South going Conservative and the ``poor'' North backing Labour - miscasts things rather badly. The big Labour margins in constituencies like Liverpool Riverside speak to economic frustration and deprivation; Labour victories in places like Edinburgh South - affluent, like Scotland generally in recent years - are something else.

The Conservatives' Scottish problem is more ethnic and nationalist than it is economic. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph last Sunday, Prof. Norman Stone of Oxford University argues that ``the answer ... is that the Conservatives are simply a foreign party. ... [They] speak with foreign accents and have different ways.... [T]he mentality of the Scottish middle classes is quite foreign to Conservatism as the English [now] understand it. Although it is difficult to acknowledge this, Scotland is a different country, and in many ways she owes more to the North European Calvinist tradition than to the English Anglican one.''

These elements have taken on an enhanced political importance, I would argue, as the Thatcherite Conservatives have enjoyed such success as an instrument of a reinvigorated English nationalism. The English economy has advanced smartly in the latter Thatcher years, compared with virtually all of the Continent. Englishmen and women no longer must read that they are in danger of being eclipsed by, of all people, the Italians! The Conservatives have been strongly associated with a distinctively English resurgence, to their detriment in the Celtic fringes.

One final factor should be noted in considering the magnitude of Labour's problems in the wake of the 1987 voting. Analysts agree that the 69 new members of the Parliamentary Labour Party - new Labour members of Parliament - further tip the balance of power away from the party's moderate wing and toward the left. The hard left, the section of the PLP most likely to cause trouble for Kinnock, has grown from 41 members to 57.

Some of the new hard-left Labour MPs have wasted no time asserting themselves. One of them, Ken Livingstone, former leader of the Greater London Council, attacked party moderates and argued that Labour MPs must be prepared to take their struggle outside the legislature. ``If we are to defeat this government,'' he insisted, ``we have made it quite clear we will do it outside Parliament.'' Scargill will applaud calls like this, but most Britons will not. The growth of the ultra left exacerbates all the problems that have eroded Labour's position over the past 15 years.

Some Conservative and Alliance officials have argued that Labour has become ``organically inelectable.'' The data now seem to bear this out. As the election results attest, success by the Alliance in establishing itself as the major challenger to the Conservatives is not thereby assured. But if the claim is in fact correct, it underscores the importance of Britain's somehow quickly finding a way into its post-Labour partisan future.

Everett Carll Ladd is executive director of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research and professor of political science at the University of Connecticut.

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