British Labour's Foot not seen as a unifying force

Alarm bells have started ringing for the leader of Britain's embattled opposition Labour Party, Michael Foot, as he struggles to assert his personal ascendancy.

He is being warned by close political allies as well as right-wing critics within the party that unless he disciplines members of Labour's extreme left wing, the chances are he stands to be voted out of the leadership.

Mr. Foot's problems arise largely from the tactics he has chosen to try to keep the leftists, led by Tony Benn, under control.

Aware that voting for top posts in the Labour Party executive last September tended to swing toward the right, he has tried to force Mr. Benn and other prominent figures on the far left to move toward the center.

The approach is being described by party insiders as an attempt to bind the Bennites into the fabric of the Labour Party.

Mr. Foot invited Mr. Benn to make a front-bench parliamentary speech attacking the Conservative government's energy policy. At the same time he called on party members to keep Mr. Benn on as chairman of Labour's influential home affairs commitee.

But neither move impressed parliamentary members of the party, who believe Mr. Foot is being unnecessarily ''soft'' toward Mr. Benn.

Mr. Foot has been adopting his conciliatory tactics at a time when extreme leftist members of Labour constituency parties are preparing to force moderate and right-wing MPs not to run as candidates in the next election.

Particularly in London, supporters of Labour's ''militant tendency'' movement (representing left-wing activists) have compiled ''hit lists'' of MPs whom it wants to be prevented from running again.

These moves have greatly angered many Labour MPs. They are arguing that although Mr. Foot is being gentle with Mr. Benn, left-wing militants owing allegience to Mr. Benn are not returning the favor.

At a meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party requested by centrist and right-wing MPs, these grievances are going to be aired.

Part of Mr. Foot's problem is that with his party in obvious disarray he is having difficulty presenting himself as a unifying force. Opinion polls show Labour heavily down in the public's estimation. Last month at a by-election near London, the Labour candidate was soundly beaten by a member of the new Social Democratic-Liberal Party alliance.

In the early runup to voting in another by-election to be held near Liverpool later this month, Labour is currently running third to the ruling Conservatives and the SDP-Liberal alliance.

By wide consent, Labour is not finding favor with the British public largely because the party has been shown to be deeply divided, with extreme left-wingers under Mr. Benn's leadership showing scant regard for their own movement's electoral prospects.

In trying to project an image as a credible party leader Mr. Foot is sometimes his own worst enemy.

This past weekend at a ceremony honoring Britain's war dead, the Labour leader turned up wearing a dufflecoat, shabby suit, sneakers, and paisley tie. Thus attired, he stood beside Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the Liberal Party leader, David Steel, both beautifully turned out.

One of Mr. Foot's MPs issued a public statement afterward saying that his party leader had been ''dressed like a tramp.'' Another said he looked like ''an unemployed navvy (unskilled laborer).''

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