Humpty-Dumpty Labour

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her fellow Conservatives are the beneficiaries of the struggle going on within the British Labour Party. The wrangling reduces the effectiveness of Labour as the opposition, draws attention away from the government's economic difficulties, and thereby lessens the political consequences of these difficulties. Mrs. Thatcher, despite growing public criticism of her tough policies, must be smiling.

The question many ask is whether the Labour Party can put itself together to become once again a strong political force. Or whether it is in fact collapsing and paving the way for the emergence of a new party. The resignation of former Prime Minister James Callaghan as Labour's leader is bound to sharpen the antagonisms between the left and right wings. With no decision made on how to elect the new leader, each side will maneuver for advantage. The right will probably prov ceed with the traditional mechanism of balloting among its members of Parliament; the left will try to unseat the victor if a new system of election is adopted early next year -- a system that would give more power to representatives of the trade unions and the so- called constituency parties. This could lead to continued standoff and party weakness -- and, conceivably, a breakaway of the right.

That is pure speculation at this point, however, and it is impossible to know how the winds will blow several months hence. Outsiders can only watch with interest and a tinge of concern as the Labour Party gropes to adjust to what are profound social changes taking place in Britain. The fact is, the social base of the party is shifting as the working class shrinks. Today the Labour MPs are largely middle class in origin, and party membership generally has declined -- a trend not out of keeping with Britain's essentially conservative bent. Because the party is growing smaller, however, it has been easier for the die- hard radical activists to take over leadership of the local parties.

The radicals are pushing against the tide of the times. They not only seek to overturn the party's traditional and democratic elecv tion system. They favor a British policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Community and NATO. They also continue to advocate socialist economic policies now eschewed by social democrats in such economically successful countries as West Germany. Britain's internationally minded friends in the West would therefore be horrified if the Labour left won out in its battle with such moderates as Denis Healey, Shirley Williams, and David Owen.

We tend to think, however, that British common sense will prevail in the end. The Labour Party is now pushing and hauling in reaction to its humbling defeat in the last election and the changing realities in Britain. The trauma is far from over. But, if Labour has any hopes of challenging Margaret Thatcher three or so years hence, it will have to exchange its bitter divisions for compromise and renewed unity.

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