Britain's Labour Party casts a shadow cabinet

Britain's Labour Party, after some internal scuffling, has given a center-right cast to its 12-man "shadow cabinet" of opposition spokesmen who will lead the challenge to the Conservative government.

In a complex balancing of power, the Labour members of parliament (MPs) have surrounded its newly elected left-wing leader, Michael Foot, with such formidable centrists as Denis Healey, Roy Hattersley, and Peter Shore. It has also excluded two prominent left-wing former ministers, tony Benn and Eric Heffer.

The overall effect, say commentators here, is of a party continuing to look inward at its own troubles. the shadow cabinet appointments, many feel, seem more aimed at soothing internal strife than of mounting the most formidable opposition possible to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's policies.

Assembling a new Labour Party shadow cabinet is a two-stage process: In a popularity contest Dec. 4, Labour members chose the party's top 12 spokesmen. On Dec. 8, party leader Foot assigned them to specific offices.

In the first stage, left-winger Tony Benn just missed out, coming 13th in the party poll. In the second stage, Mr. Foot himself produced several surprises:

* The former shadow defense spokesman, the outspoken William Rodgers, was given no portfolio. Mr. Foot is a confirmed supporter of unilateral nuclear disarmament -- a policy noisily approved by the Labour Party at its recent annual conference -- while Mr. Rodgers strongly supports an independent British nuclear deterrent. So the role of defense spokesman went to a little-known MP outside the 12, Brynmor T. John -- a decision that suggests Mr. Foot himself will speak on defense matters. * Mr. Foot split the portfolio on health and social services into its two components, and assigned each to a representative outside the 12. He has also given the post on Norther Ireland to a nonshadow cabinet member.

The result: Four (including defense) of what may be the most crucial areas of government policymaking in the next few years have no front-rank spokesman.

Mr. Hattersley, who topped the Dec. 4 ballot of MPs in the parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), will cover home affairs. Mr. Healey, the deputy leader defeated by Mr. Foot in last month's leadership elections, will speak on foreign affairs while Mr. Shore will become the Treasury and Economic Affairs spokesman.

The attention of commentators here, however, remains focused on the anomalous role of Mr. Rodgers, an experienced former minister who was offered some lesser posts but turned them down. Mr. Foot, elected to heal the party's rancorous divisions, has had difficulty striking a balance. To exclude Mr. Rodgers hardly mollifies the party's right.

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