Britain's Labour Party In Tumult Over Advice From Clinton Strategists

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

BILL CLINTON'S campaign advisers have been sharing the secrets of the new president's electoral victory with leaders of the British Labour Party, but their advice has stirred a hornets' nest of opposition among Labour's traditional socialists.

Labour strategists, still trying to understand why their party lost last April's general election, invited the Clinton team to London. At a seminar in mid-January attended by party and trade union officials, Stanley Greenberg, a Clinton pollster, and Paul Begala, a key speechwriter, advised them that if they wanted to find their way back to power after 14 years in opposition they should concentrate on winning over British middle class voters.

Their remarks were supported by Robert Kuttner, an American political commentator, who urged Labour to "get rid of the trappings that suggest it is a minority-based party."

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The reaction among Labour traditionalists, led by John Prescott, a senior member of Labour's "shadow" cabinet who has strong trade union connections, was to accuse John Smith, Labour's leader, of getting ready to abandon socialist principles. "There are people in our party who are obsessed with image rather than ideological conviction," Mr. Prescott said. "Such people helped us to lose the last two elections, and they are about to draw exactly the wrong conclusions from Clinton's victory."

He added that "a battle for the soul of the Labour Party" was underway.

After their election defeat last year Labour strategists made contact with Democratic campaign managers and arranged for Margaret Beckett, Labour's deputy leader, and other party officials to join the Clinton retinue.

After Mr. Clinton's victory, the team advised the Labour Party to "forge a new party identity." It was no good being seen as "the party of the poor and the past," two of its members said in an article addressed to Labour supporters. Instead it should identify, as Clinton had, with "the working middle class."

This provoked a furious response from traditionalists. Clare Short, a Prescott supporter in the House of Commons, said the reformers were trying to "get rid of all our old values" by "chasing a Clinton myth."

This in turn drew a rebuke from Roy Hattersley, the party's deputy leader until last April, who said that in the Prescott analysis "the litmus test of genuine socialism is opposition to the Maastricht Treaty [on European integration], support for a basically undemocratic party constitution, and a willingness to go on losing general elections."

The reformers count among their ranks some of Labour's most influential politicians of the younger generation. Gordon Brown, the "shadow" chancellor, and Tony Blair, the home affairs spokesman, have argued publicly for attention to be paid to the Clinton victory and the reasons for it.

They have dismissed Prescott's contention that the new president is in the White House "not because of his policies but because of his personality."

The problem faced by the Labour Party appears comparable to that of the Democrats in the 12-year Reagan-Bush ascendancy. Under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, her successor as prime minister, Britain's Conservatives have been backed by many voters who used to support socialist policies.

Polls have shown that as many as 1 trade unionist in 3 votes Conservative, impressed by Thatcherite privatization policies, curbs on wildcat strikes, and the sale of local government housing to tenants. One Labour reformer compared disaffected Labour supporters with the Reagan Democrats whom Clinton attempted with some success to win over last November.

In a paper delivered to a Labour Party seminar, Mr. Greenberg said the key to recovery was "listening to the people." The Democrats had become "an elitist suburban party with a contempt for working Americans." Clinton had successfully challenged that approach.

"Taxes matter - it's real money that comes out of people's pockets," Greenberg said.

Some Labour strategists are impressed by what they call Clinton's mix of economic interventionism and a conservative approach to social questions.

Mr. Smith, who took over the Labour leadership from Neil Kinnock after the general election, is widely seen as a moderate who combines belief in some of his party's traditional doctrines, such as universal social benefits, with awareness that old-style socialism will never again return the party to power.

He has reason to listen to advice about the tax sensitivity of middle class voters. In the 1992 election campaign Smith persuaded Labour to advocate income tax increases for people earning more than 21,000 pounds ($32,000) a year. Later analysis showed that many middle class voters had been turned off by Labour's tax policies and stuck to supporting the Conservatives.

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