Britain's great political shift: all parties feel the earth move

"By the end of the year," said an old hand who has monitored the Westminster scene since World War II, "the face of British politics may have changed beyond recognition."

It is not hard to see why the sense of the earth moving beneath the feet of public men and women is so strong. As the season of annual conferences rushed up, all the main parties, including a new one -- the Social Democratic Party (SDP) -- were in flux.

The ruling Conservatives, midway through their first parliamentary term, were still adjusting to a Cabinet reshuffle ordered by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher -- a step that seemed to take the Tories further to the right, just as moderates within the party were urging more flexible policies.

The Labour Party, led by Michael Foot was in the throes of a massive struggle for ultimate control of the commanding heights. Tony Benn, the darling of the left had battled hard, and ruthlessly, for the post of deputy leader, against the middle-of-the-road Denis Healey.

From within the Labour Party there are cries that ideology has been distorted that socialist goals are being abandoned and replaced by hard-line Marxist ones. Demands that Britain should quit NATO and the Common Market reflected the growing strength of the radical left whose pretentions a year earlier helped to spawn the Social Democrats.

he new Social Democratic Party, led for the moment by a group of moderate socialists, has been claiming that the disarray of the Labour Party and the failure of the Tories to turn around Britain's drift into high unemployment and economic stagnation open its path to power at the next election.

But even Social Democratic luminaries like Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams know that the facts of political life are not really so simple or straightforward.

If it is to have a chance, the SDP must fight the next general election in an alliance with the Liberal Party. Although a formal alliance now exists, it is a shaky one with much mistrust all around as the Social Democrats wonder whether the Liberals are out to eclipse them, and vice versa.

Even within the SDP itself a major dispute appears to be bubbling. The party has published a draft constitution, which the rank and file will debate in coming weeks. It proposes a dual leadership -- a president elected by popular ballot, and a parliamentary leader chosen by SDP members of Parliament.

There is already argument over whether the parliamentary leader should be chosen by his conferees at Westminster, and that was one of the issues that prompted many Social Democrats to quit the Labour Party in the first place.

As all these twists and turns work their way through the political life of Britain, one might be tempted to imagine that the battles are taking place upon a scene in which all else is stable and predictable. But that is miles from the truth.

As the political parties conduct their skirmishes at assorted seaside resorts , the state of the British economy appears more and more menacing.

Mrs. Thatcher was told last week that unemployment was within a whisker of 3 million, with the trend accelerating. Inflation is moving steadily back into double digits. For the sixth quarter in a row, industrial output has dropped.

The pound has been taking a battering on the foreign exchanges once again, and the stock exchange has been jumpy, with the share index dropping remorselessly.

The Bank of England tried to sharpen the pound and soothe the stockbrokers by ordering a large increase in interest rates. But the effect was not encouraging , and as Mrs. Thatcher prepared to face her own party supporters to account for her policies there was talk of even higher interest rates being needed.

Industrialists winced in trepidation. In areas of industrial concentration, like the Midlands, many businesses already have their backs to the wall.

According to one industrial leader, another point or two added to overdrafts would be a matter of deep seriousness, slashing output, depressing productivity, and making it harder still for firms to be competitive.

For the government, the threat of all these negative factors is explicit and dangerous. If Prime Minister Thatcher's basic policies -- which she continues to insist are correct -- don't work, the chances of the Tories remaining in power melt.

She argues that the main thing is to get inflation down, and she has tried hard to do so. But the graphs appear to the thwarting her, and the high level of unemployment means that there are many voters feeling bitter and unlikely to vote again for Tory policies.

The disarray of Labour may be a saving grace for Thatcher. If Foot were not heading a movement riven by splits and ideological argument of the most passionate kind, it might be possible to see the Labour Party moving, quietly and confidently, into a position where its leaders could say, "Mrs. Thatcher has tried and failed. Let us try to succeed."

But Foot cannot adopt that posture for the simple reason that Labour's battles, traditionally public and intense, have reached a level of ferocity unknown since the war.

Political scientists suggest that beneath the surface, important issues are being tackled. It is not only who should lead parties, they say, but how they should be led. The question of accountability, of heeding rank-and-file opinion , is central to Labour's squabbles.

Tony Benn has argued for greater party democracy, more accountability. His critics say that is a mere smoke screen for the takeover of Labour by an elite of the far left, as bad or worse for the party as anything that has resulted from the elitism of the right.

But while the political scientists can perhaps take professional satisfaction from spotting the party trends, ordinary voters may be less happy.

Perhaps the essence of the public's concern is that while the economy drifts and falters, the politicians are seen to be engaged in narrow squabbles for power.

For the Tories, the Labour Party, the Social Democrats, and their liberal allies alike, the process of creating new party structures and swinging into fresh policy attitudes appears to be taking precedence over the need to govern Britain firmly and well.

It is not the first time in the country's postwar history that inner-party battles have outweighed national concerns. But it is hard to remember a moment since 1945 when the country was in such a fix and the politicians were so concerned with their own squabbles that the urgent needs of the nation seem to be thrust into the shadows.

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