LONDON — BRITAIN'S opposition Labour Party has broken its historic links with trade union barons in a bid to make itself more electable.
The landmark decision on Sept. 29 at the party's annual conference gives John Smith, its new leader, greatly enhanced authority. It means that bloc voting, enabling union chieftains to cast a million or more ballots on behalf of their members, will cease and be replaced by a system of one member, one vote.
In what Mr. Smith, after a knife-edge vote, called ``an important step toward victory at the next general election,'' the conference ended nearly a century of dominance of the party's affairs by leaders of organized labor.
Many British voters still regard trade unions as bastions of industrial traditionalism led by hard-line activists in the mold of Arthur Scargill, the miners' leader who engineered a lengthy coal strike in the mid-1980s. In some Conservative-supporting newspapers during last year's general election, cartoonists depicted the unions as a plodding cart-horse - an image they have been unable to shed since the beginning of this century.
The key to what has happened, however, is probably in public perceptions of how the Labour Party decides its policies. The former spectacle of individual trade union bosses being shown on nationwide television casting votes on behalf of hundreds of thousands of their members was described by one of the Labour leader's senior advisers as ``unacceptable in the modern era.''
In the future, trade union delegates to party conferences will be free to vote individually. They will also be able to cast individual ballots in the selection of parliamentary candidates.
Both developments were described by Neil Kinnock, Smith's predecessor as Labour leader, as ``blows for democracy.'' Ironically, the key decision was taken under the old bloc voting system. Smith gained a 3 percent edge over his opponents only after intensive lobbying of union delegations.
Another irony is that it was Margaret Thatcher, the former Conservative prime minister, who succeeded in curbing the ability of trade unions to cause industrial disruption. Now a Labour leader has pursued the same theme in his party's own affairs.
MOST political analysts agree that, after 14 years in the political wilderness, the Labour Party must modernize itself or see the Conservative Party extend its hold on power. Studies of the last four general elections carried out by David Butler, a leading authority on voting patterns, have shown that trade union dominance of the Labour Party is widely perceived by voters as the opposition's greatest electoral handicap.
Smith's uphill task was to persuade trade unionists, who provide his party with most of its funds, that they must relax their grip on the labor movement. He succeeded after Bill Jordan, leader of the engineering and electrical workers, denounced the ``monstrous inequality'' of the bloc vote.
But two huge unions - representing the transport workers and general and municipal workers - opposed Smith to the bitter end.
The Labour leader is a member of the general and municipal workers' union, and thus found himself ranged against his own trade union representatives.
At one point in the debate Smith declared: ``As the party of change we must surely be able to change ourselves.''
Prime Minister John Major, whose popularity rating fell to 17 percent in the latest opinion poll, claims that despite Smith's victory, the Labour Party is still in hock to the unions.
After Wednesday's vote Mr. Major said: ``It's policy that counts, and unions are still calling the tune.''
Two weeks before the Labour conference, Smith pledged to the annual gathering of the Trades Union Congress (TUC) that a Labour government would work for full employment, introduce a national minimum wage, and extend employment rights to workers. The undertaking was criticized by Major and his supporters as an attempt to curry favor with the TUC ahead of Wednesday's vote.