Britain's battle for the political center ground heats up

Down on countless village greens, a still-warm sun casts shadows as stately white-clad cricketers reluctantly give way to the colorful jerseys and whooping shouts of soccer players.

Children are back in their classrooms. Politics at Westminster is back on front pages. The daily pace and rhythm of life are picking up toward winter and Christmas.

But underneath the enduring facade, political and economic forces in this ancient nation are girding for mighty battle.

Recession still bites deep. Unemployment is high, output low, the pound sterling weak.

The big prize now: the center ground of British opinion, that moderate middle in which most voters are thought to feel most comfortable.

The prospect, after recent headline events here: that the Conservative government is moving more to the right, and the Labour opposition is being pulled more to the left. That leaves the centrist Liberals and the hopeful Social Democrats ready to pick up more support at the expense of both.

It is still too early to predict if they will. The next general election will not come before late 1983.

But Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's latest cabinet reshuffle signals that her bold gamble of late 1979, when her policies were introduced, is still in play. She has moderated her stern monetarist policies not a whit.

On the same day that she sacked three moderate (so-called "wet") Cabinet ministers and replaced them with people more loyal to herself and her policies, she also authorized a rise in British interest rates.

Both moves signaled her unwavering detemination to stay on course. Indeed, she appears determined to try to emulate President Reagan more closely, by moving to strengthen, rather than weaken, what is known as the "supply side" theory of economic policymaking.

Meanwhile, the left and far left wings of the Labour opposition rush toward a showdown at their annual conference at Brighton at the end of September.

On the surface, it is a contest between moderate Denis Healey and far left-winger Tony Benn (the former Viscount Stansgate) for deputy leadership of the party. Mr. Healey now holds the position.

Actually, it is the latest chapter in a gathering effort by young, radical, far-left activists to subjugate the parliamentary wing of the party and force it to adopt such positions as more nationalization, unilateral nuclear disarmament of Britain, quitting the European Community without a referendum beforehand, and others.

Mr. Benn may just fail at the party conference. But even if he does, he and his supporters are laying vigorous plans to oppose shadow cabinet decisions and erode parliamentary party influence over the next 12 months.

All this leaves the newly-formed Social Democrats of Shirley Williams, Dr. David Owen, William Rodgers, and Roy Jenkins more and more hopeful that despite various difficulties so far, the political tide is running their way.

The Social Democrats lay open claim to the center ground of British politics. In an interview with this corrspondent recently, Mrs. Williams (former Labour minister and one of the most popular politicians in Britain) said her new party would rise or fall according to the tactics of the two main parties.

If Conservatives kept moving to the right, and Labour kept fighting over how far to move left, then the Social Democratic brand of centrist policies at home and liberal support of NATO and the European Community abroad would have great appeal.

If, however, the two main parties moved back to the center, Mrs. Williams agreed the Social Democratic movement could be crushed. So far, the right-left divide yawns wide.

An opinion poll in The Times Sept. 14 (1,775 adults interviewed in 153 points around Sept. 2) showed Conservative support 15 percent lower than in May 1979, Labour steady, and the SDP with 16 percent.

If an election were held tomorrow, Conservative support would be 30 percent, Labour 39 percent, Social Democrats 16 percent. But asked how they would vote if the Social Democrats join with the centrist Liberal Party (an alliance now being forged), 41 percent backed the alliance, 31 percent would vote Labour, and 25 percent would vote Conservative.

The Social Democrats are still mainly a middle-class, southern England party, unable to challenge Labour majorities in recession-hit northern England, Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland. But with 16 north London city councilors newly defecting from Labour to the new party, plus one more member of Parliament , and with the economy still grim, Mrs. William's hopes are buoyant.

Mrs. Thatcher is unmoved, however. Her Cabinet reshuffle indicates how determined she is on her monetarist course.

Her new employment secretary, loyalist Norman Tebbit, is expected to bring in legislation curbing trade union powers, specifically by weakening the "closed shop" principle (under which a worker must join a union to hold a job), which applies in many fields.

Similarly, the new industry minister, Patrick Jenkin, is expected to tackle anew the monopoly powers of the giant nationalized industries -- British Steel, British Rail, and others -- have drained Mrs. Thatcher's treasury, distorted her financial strategy, and led to criticism in the US.

Trade unions said they were upset at the removal of James Prior as employment secretary. The chairman of the Trades Union Council (TUC) economic committee, David Basnett, vowed to oppose any tougher antiunion moves.

Mr. Prior's shift to Northern Ireland might signal a new British initiative there. Although he had not wanted the job, Mr. Prior said his family and friends persuaded him he had to serve. He is a tough political heavyweight, in a tough job.

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