Britain's Labour Party opts for moderate leaders -- but leftist policies

Despite a topsy-turvy annual conference, Britain's Labor Party managed to regain a little balance this week. But left wing sentiment remains strong. The big gainer is the eloquent but sometimes indecisive party leader, Michael foot.

The potential loser is the country's just-formed alliance between the Liberals and the new Social Democrats who hope to seize the political center from left-leaning Labour and right-leaning Conservatives.

At first, commentators watching Labour's raucous conference in Brighton saw both the defeat of controversial left-winger Tony Benn (in his bid for the party deputy leadership) and changes in the party's influential National Executive Committee (NEC) as a swing to the right.

It would be truer to say that while the tide in the Labour Party now seems to be flowing against Benn personally, the left is still strong on major policy issues.

Meanwhile the new makeup of the Labour Party's NEC is bound to lead toward internal reconciliation rather than confrontation. This is vital to the party since the NEC is a powerful body that effectively runs the party between annual conferences and has great influence on policy.

After this week's NEC elections, it is made up equally of members who are broadly right or moderate and broadly left. Hence party leader Foot will hold the balance and have much more influence on its decisions.

Mr. Foot is no extremist. But he is well to the left of many parliamentary colleagues. It puzzled many people, therefore, that his parliamentary spokesmen on defense and foreign affairs are MPs who do not support his own unilateral nuclear disarmament and anti-European Community stance.

At time of writing, the party conference had yet to vote on withdrawal from the European Community. And unilateral nuclear disarmament, though overwhelmingly supported, is not yet official party policy. But Labour is not likely to go into the next general election on those policies, for which there is already widespread support in the country.

Its alternative economic strategy has the support of both the party and the trade unions. This program for the country's recovery prescribes public investment in industry and services, compulsory planning agreements of the kind used in France, and selected import controls.

Labour's narrow rejection of the Benn thrust toward its leadership and the shift on the party's NEC are bad news for the Social Democrats and Liberals who had been assuming that they would form the next government. Extensive advertising by the Social Democrats in the national press the day after Labour's deputy leadership poll fell very flat. It had apparently been placed in the expectation of a Benn victory.

But Labour's left wing is still very much alive. Although the removal of five left-wing members from the NEC marked the end of a long campaign by the right in the trade union wing of the party, Mr. Benn was beaten not by the right but by the abstention of 37 left-wing MPs in the final vote.

Mr. Benn himself created the division on the party's left the finally defeated him when he decided to contest the deputy leadership without waiting for the rest of the left to decide who, if anyone, should represent them.

So while many left-wing Labour supporters are understandably puzzled that left-wing MPs should be responsible for letting the right-wing Denis Healey retain the deputy leadership, the left-wing MPs themselves resent being accused by Mr. Benn's supporters of betraying him, since they did not support him in the first place.

In addition, some Benn campaigners alienated potential support by claiming that he alone represented party policy. Another disincentive was the expectation that 20 more Labour MPs would have defected to the Social Democratic Party if Mr. Benn had won.

Nonetheless, Mr. Benn remains immensely popular in local Labour parties, and his old-fashioned evangelical socialist style still has great appeal.

Mr. Healey is more popular than Mr. Benn in the country as a whole, but since he beat Benn less than one percentit is not easy to forecast what effect his win will have.

One effect is that the party's right wing is already realizing that it must be more responsive to grass-roots opinion. If it can do that while retaining a relatively good image, the unity and credibility of the party, and therefore its electoral chances, must be strengthened.

Conference delegates this week have been expressing optimism that their policy decisions will become part of the legislative program of the next British government.

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