LONDON — BRITAIN'S Labour Party is preparing to elect a new leader amid hopes that conditions are right for a successful return to power after 15 years in the political wilderness.
Tony Blair, front runner in the leadership race, says Labour's success in the June 9 elections to the European Parliament was a turning point in the party's fortunes.
Labour candidates won 62 of the 87 seats contested, while John Major's Conservative party's seats tumbled from 32 to 18.
Mr. Blair called the opposition party's successes ``an important breakthrough,'' and noted that Labour had been able to notch up wins in hitherto rock-solid Conservative Party bastions in southern England.
He claimed that the European Parliament results in the south were a strong indication that Labour is well placed to conquer the Conservative citadels it must seize if it wants to win the general election for the British Parliament in two years' time.
But at a June 13 press conference, a defiant Mr. Major brushed aside what political analysts are calling his party's worst electoral performance this century. He said he had no intention of stepping down as premier and would pin his hopes on a government reshuffle in July.
Labour's string of successes in the June 9 election was achieved on a voter turnout of only 36 percent. Robert Worcester, chairman of the MORI polling organization, said many Conservative voters had stayed away in protest at the government's economic policies.
Others, Mr. Worcester said, had sensed that the Conservatives were split on European policy and had either abstained or cast votes for Labour or the Liberal Democratic Party.
There were ample signs that the extent of Labour's gains for the Euro-parliament had stunned leading Conservatives. Major had hoped that a last-minute swing to the Conservatives would stem the opposition tide.
Instead, says Peter Kellner, an election analyst, Labour candidates were victorious in parts of Britain that ``many Conservatives thought would stay blue forever.''
Among the Conservative casualties were Sir Christopher Prout, the party's leader in the European Parliament.
Conservative Party Chairman Sir Norman Fowler called the June 9 outcome ``disappointing.'' Party sources say Mr. Fowler, a close confidant of Major, was planning to step down as chairman. His departure is likely to coincide with the Cabinet reshuffle Major is promising.
As many as six Cabinet ministers could find themselves ousted if Major decides on a thorough remodeling of his administration.
But some analysts doubt whether Blair and other Labour leaders can expect to win the next general election.
David Butler, an election specialist at Nuffield College, Oxford, noted that Labour gained 45 percent of the nationwide vote, compared with the 50 percent or more that opinion polls had suggested would come their way.
Mr. Butler also detected a ``sympathy vote'' for Labour, prompted by the death a month before polling day of John Smith, the party leader.
There are indications, however, that neither Major nor prominent figures in Britain's ruling party relish the prospect of confronting an opposition party in confident mood and, probably, under Blair's leadership.
In a series of carefully planned interviews and speeches, the lawyer has begun to stress the need for Britain to achieve ``a national renewal for the new millennium.''
A key theme of Blair's comments has been stress on the need for a ``more inclusive society.''
In a June 11 Financial Times interview, he said: ``We need to develop the notion of a modern, dynamic economy which is delivering opportunity to all its people and not merely a limited number.''
Such an economy had to have at its core ``notions of social cohesion and social justice.''
A Blair adviser said this approach was ``sharply different'' from that of Major and the Conservatives who had ``set out to favor the fortunate at the expense of the disadvantaged.''
Labour's success in the June 9 poll means that it is likely to be a powerful force in sessions of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. The party's 62 successful candidates will be the largest national element in the parliament's socialist group. And with 213 seats, the socialists will be the largest grouping in the Strasbourg assembly.
Pauline Green, Labour's leader at Strasbourg, is widely favored to lead the socialist group when the newly elected parliament holds its first meeting in July.