Britain's Labour Party gears up for its Nov. 4 election

Nov. 4 is election day for Britain also -- the day the Labour Party begins voting for its new leader. The results will not spash across the world as powerfully as the news about Messrs. Carter and Reagan. But the choice of a successor to former Prime Minister James Callaghan, who resigned Oct. 15, will determine the tone of the increasingly agonizing debate about this country's future.

It will also ripple outward with consequences for Britain's role in the European Community (EC), NATO, and intenational trade.

Of the four candidates, the favorite is Denis Healey. As chancellor of the exchequer during the Callaghan years, he presided over a unpleasant a task as a socialist could want: A drastic cutback of public spending, ordered by the Internaional Monetary Fund in 1976 in return for massive loans to bolster Britain's tottering economy.

Mr. Healey proved a firm and sometimes abrasive ax man, and antagonized some powerful union chiefs. "His instincts are those of a tough man," notes one longtime political commentator, adding that "he likes a fight."

But he is also seen as a man of formidable intellect -- he has been called the best the mind in the Labour Party -- and a linguist with a passion for foreign affairs. His support comes from the center and right of the party.

The darling of the left, hot on Mr. Healey's tail, is deputy party leader Michael Foot. A longtime opponent of nuclear weapons, he favors unilateral disarmament, and would, he says, refuse to site cruise missiles in Britain and send them back if they were already in place.

If Mr. Foot were to become prime minister, he would expand the budget, work toward a voluntary incomes policy (rather than a legal limit on wage increases), increase the nationalization of industries, and try to take Britain out of the European Community.

But many voters feel this veteran politician is past his prime. And some worry that, while he is an effective speaker, Foot would let policy be dictated by political pressure from unions and constituency groups.

Surveys of the 268 Labour members of Parliament (MPs), who choose the leader, show that the other two candidates, opposition industry spokesman John Silkin and opposition foreign affairs spokesman Peter Shore, will not survive the initial ballots.

But as both are left of center, observers think that their votes will move largely to Mr. Foot on the second and third ballots, scheduled (if needed) for Nov. 10 and 13. To succeed, Mr. Healey needs to corner a substantial lead on the first ballot -- so that he looks like a winner to waverers.

Whichever candidate wins will provide a contrast to "Sunny Jim" Callaghan. He was known as a cloakroom politician, a "fixer" more interested in piecing together coalitions than in analyzing the subtance of problems.

Mr. Healey, by contrast, tends to tackle problems analytically and meet them head-on. "HE doesn't get along, he doesn't patch things up," says one observer.

And although Mr. Foot has mellowed from his antinuclear street-marching days in the early '60s and is a seasoned elder statesman, he may lean more toward ideology than pragmatism.

Two new factors, however, make the race unpredictable:

* Mandatory reselection. At its Blackpool conference in early October, the Labour Party decided that each sitting MP must be reapproved by his local constituency prior to each election.

But many constituency parties are strongly left wing. Their message to their MPs: Vote against Mr. Healey or we dump you next time around.

Fear of the reselection process, one commentator told the Monitor, may pressure the "soft center" to vote not to choose the best leader but simply to save their own seats.

* An electoral college. The conference also voted to chose the leader by an electoral college composed not only of MPs but also of union and constituency representatives.

But they failed to agree on the makeup of the college. So the current vote is still among MPs. A party conference in January will try to set up the mechanism -- which will probably give much more power to the left wing.

If Mr. Foot wins the current election, he would be almost assured of being re-elected under new rules after January. But Mr. Healey might not be -- opening the possibility that he might remain as parliamentary leader (as he threatens to do) but not as party leader.

None of this bodies well for the party's future. Observers agree that a winning Mr. Healey would have to focus on binding up party animosities rather than on criticizing the government.

Mr. Foot might be freer to attack the Tories. But he might also yield to left-wing views so unpopular in the nation as to render the party unelectable in 1984 barring a major catas trophe among the Tories.

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