Labour goes back to work

WHEN he hasn't been busy serving as unpaid consultant to the Biden campaign, Neil Kinnock has been working hard to bring the British Labour Party back from the far-left fringe and into something like electability. It is party conference season in Britain, and Labourites, convened at the southern English seaside resort of Brighton, have been chewing over his plan for a massive review of Labour Party policy. Mr. Kinnock hopes to make Labour a realistic alternative to a fourth term for Margaret Thatcher and her Conservative Party. His critics say he is aiming to make Labour a clone of the Tories.

But the political landscape of Britain has been redefined during the Thatcher era. Since the Conservatives first came to power in 1979, the percentage of the population that are homeowners has risen from 52 to 66; the percentage that own shares of stock has grown from 7 to 19 (largely a result of the privatization of British Telecom); the percentage that are trade unionists has fallen from 30 to 23; and the proportion defined as ``middle class'' has risen from one-third to two-fifths.

Moreover, Britain is enjoying a real ``High Street boom,'' with 4.25 percent economic growth, and with earnings, productivity, and capital investment nicely on the rise.

And so, Kinnock noted, quoting a union official, the traditional Labour appeal, ``Let me take you out of your misery, brother,'' is no longer relevant. Not that some Labourites don't keep sounding that refrain.

It is not clear that Kinnock will pull off the reforms he is trying for. He has had some success in containing the excesses of his party's left wing. But Tony Benn and ``Red Ken'' Livingstone - two left-wing champions - edged out some moderate reformers in elections to the party's national executive.

Last June, Labour was widely seen as having won the campaign, but lost the election. The party's two main liabilities were the so-called ``loony left'' and its nonnuclear defense position. Arms control accords between the superpowers could make objections to Labour's defense policy moot. If what Kinnock has called ``the dafties'' can be brought under control, he could have a shot at 10 Downing Street.

Meanwhile, support in the polls for the Social Democratic/Liberal Alliance, which a few years back looked likely to reclaim the center ground being abandoned by the ever leftward-drifting Labour Party, is about 14 percent of the vote. That is where the Liberals were in 1979, before the Social Democratic Party was founded.

The extreme polarization of the early Thatcher years has lessened, and British politics is back to its normal, two-party self. And that is where Labour has a much greater potential to serve the political process: as a sensible alternative to the excesses of ``me first'' Toryism rather than as a bunch of ideologues breathing Marxist fire but talking mainly to themselves.

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