Britain's big by-election

A by-election in the docklands of south London would seldom get a second glance elsewhere. But the results last week are being discussed far and wide as one of the biggest political upsets in Britain since World War II. How could a Labour Party parliamentary candidate be decimated in a taken-for-granted working-class stronghold at a time of soaring unemployment?

The defeated Labourite, Peter Tatchell, was blaming mudslinging and lies in the press as he saw his lead fall sharply in the final days. There was controversy over local issues such as housing. But inevitably larger interpretations are being made. They suggest deep trouble for the Labour Party and leader Michael Foot, who first disowned and then endorsed Mr. Tatchell. They suggest brighter prospects for the alliance of Liberals and Social Democrats. The winning candidate, Liberal Simon Hughes, basked in the alliance's first defeat of a Labour candidate, claiming that it could do what the ruling Conservatives could not.

It might be remembered that one reason various Social Democrats-to-be left the Labour Party was the rise of militant left-wing elements. Mr. Tatchell was the candidate of those elements, and his defeat was reportedly hoped for by right-wing members of his own party. As he himself saw before the election, a failure to win convincingly would be a stick used against the left not only in the Bermondsey district of London where it took place but all over the country.

Will Labour be split further before the next general election? This might come by summer, when the Conservatives could have the advantage of new election boundaries providing a number of new seats in staunchly Conservative counties.

Mr. Foot, leaning leftward, has evidently not been able to pull Labour together. Speculation is that the Bermondsey defeat has spurred the move to dislodge him that was already underway in the light of Labour's decline in national polls. Dennis Healey, more in the center of the party, is seen as the likely successor.

It would seem that Labour's leftist ideologues have to calculate whether the satisfactions of radicalism are worth robbing their party of whatever chance it may have to spring back in public favor.

Meanwhile, the apparent victory for moderation in south London merits the widespread attention it is getting as a straw in the wind.

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