Behind the election headlines: British voters' quiet concerns

A Conservative win in Britain's June 9 election could mark the taming of Britain's traditionally strike-prone unions. They lie half-submerged beneath the trumpeted, headline election issues of unemployment, the economy, and nuclear defense. They are the other issues that British voters urgently want solved.

Emerging in dozens of conversations held in London and the Midlands in recent days were topics ranging from class divisions to the environment, from police weapons to the hunting of foxes, otters, and badgers.

These ''other'' issues tend to receive less than full attention in a brief, three-week campaign dominated by television and personalities - especially when divisions between the parties appear deeper than at any other time since World War II.

The issues reveal a British electorate of 42.7 million men and women many of whom are disillusioned with politics and politicians, but yearn for clear directions and answers. Many are more and more worried by the gaps that are clearly visible il14l,0,7l,6p9between social classes and geographic regions.

True, there is real and dominant concern about how to reduce the country's record 13.3 percent unemployment. But in some areas of Scotland, Wales, and the north of England, unemployment runs at 20 percent and above. And my conversations, held on streets, in homes, and in offices, were often dominated by the plight of school-leavers.

Meanwhile, other points raised were:

Social class and its divisions.

''How can we bridge the gaps?'' asks wife and mother Gillian Harley on a rainy morning in Birmingham in the crucial swing-vote area of the west Midlands. ''It's not as bad as you Americans seem to think after watching 'Upstairs, Downstairs' (the British television series). But it is definitely a problem. . . .''

One of her relatives went to a technical school and works in a fire brigade. Another, who went to a grammar school, has a ''classier'' accent and ''always thinks he knows best.'' Mrs. Harley comments: ''Why can't we be more egalitarian , like the Germans?'' Others echoed her words.

The environment.

''Can we really keep Britain green in the face of new towns and pollution?'' asked college senior Richard Burt.

A London housewife shared his concern: ''I am worried that the 'new-town' developments are creeping across the country and rural peace is being lost. I don't see the parties concentrating on the issue. . . .''

Britain's first-past-the-post system makes it extremely difficult for smaller parties to grow or survive here, as the Green Party has done in West Germany. Nonetheless, a small Ecology Party was founded 10 years ago. A spokesman in London says it is putting up 109 candidates, compared to 53 in 1979. Its platform includes the need to switch government funds from the British nuclear power program to ''conservation, insulation, and alternative energy strategies.''

But it is far less visible than the Greens in West Germany, where proportional representation is used. Apart from an hour-long question-and-answer period on British Broadcasting Corporation radio by Nicholas Porritt, election coordinator (and parliamentary candidate in Kensington), the party has received little national publicity.

Voters are concerned, as their comments show, but they like voting for people who can win. In 1979 the party obtained a mere 39,918 votes around the country.

Increased government centralization.

''We need to decentralize much, much more, so that the people themselves have more control over their own local affairs,'' said Social Democratic candidate Chris Barber to voters on the high street in Birmingham's marginal Erdington constituency. The Social Democrats hammer away at the theme, but other parties refer to it much less.

The nation's talent is increasingly drawn to London at the expense of the rest of the country. ''Never accept a posting in the north,'' a London businessman once warned me. ''It's cheaper to live up there - but you'll never be able to afford to go back to London prices again. And let's face it, London is the only place for anyone with ambition. . . .'' Shift toward US-style campaigns.

Aided by television, Britain's national campaign has become more like US presidential campaigns.

''Political leaders are like film stars now,'' said Humphrey Metzgen, a commercial television executive in London. ''On TV each night, their personalities seem to dominate the issues themselves. The media follow the leaders. Everyone is accusing the other.

''In one way, instead of making the leaders more real to voters, it makes them more remote, people who live unimaginably far beyond the everyday lives of most of us. It never used to be like that.''

Commentators have remarked on the US convention style of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's biggest rally at Wembley Conference Center in London June 5. Some 2,500 young supporters stamped their feet, blew horns, and waved flags as stage and screen stars performed.

When Mrs. Thatcher spoke, she added to the US atmosphere by using a sophisticated teleprompter first used here by President Reagan when he addressed the two houses of Parliament last year. Her speech was projected onto two plastic sheets on stands, one on her left, one on her right. From the audience side, the sheets seemed transparent. Matching Britain's university courses to industry needs.

Ian Gulliver of Birmingham is a young industrial chemist with a degree from Leicester University in chemistry and economics. He has been out of work since February of last year, when the plant where he worked was closed.

''A teacher warned me back in 1973 not to go into chemistry because British industry was collapsing,'' he said. ''It turns out that he was right. . . . But why isn't more done to channel students into fields that the country really needs?''

Potential changes in traditional ways, such as unarmed police, and individual privacy.

''I am afraid of a police state one day in Britain,'' a Birmingham woman said.

That might sound surprising to those overseas who associate Britain with stability, law, and order. Yet a number of voters worry that police are using guns more in some big cities, even though their use is incomparably less than in the US. Polls show that as many as 60 percent of voters link rising crime to the number of people out of work.

''And I don't want the government to have the right to be able to search around in computer files to find out about me,'' the woman said. In the last session of Parliament, the government was forced to amend a draft law on privacy to take account of this kind of concern.

Among other significant issues: the underlying challenge of integrating or assimilating Britain's immigrant and first-generation ethnic communities, ranging from Indians and Pakistanis to West Indians and Africans.

''There is no way that the younger generation of blacks are going to be content to remain in the ghetto,'' says a successful black London businessman. ''Already their accents are exactly the same as the whites around them. On the Paris Metro [subway] the other day I heard a Yorkshire accent, turned, and saw a black face where I had instinctively expected a white one.''

The Tory party tried to appeal to blacks with a campaign advertisement saying , ''Labour says he's black, the Conservatives say he's British.''

''I've always thought I was British,'' remarked the businessman, ''so the ad was insulting, in a way.''

In other areas, the unsolved problems of Northern Ireland have been little aired. Voters do not seem to want British troops withdrawn, but they are weary of the violence and killing. Few people either have the answers themselves or think any government could produce them soon.

On education, a number of voters are torn between the need for more quality and less elitism in schools. Some urge reform of the so-called ''comprehensive'' state schools. Middle- and upper-class parents insist on the right to pay fees for private schools.

Although each party has its policies on education, a number of voters felt the details were being submerged in the other issues in the campaign.Sports.

Among other issues cropping up is blood sport.

''We're against fox hunting,'' said Labour Party candidate Jack Turner in Birmingham's Selly Oak seat. ''We also oppose sending terriers down badger holes , and otter-hunting with dogs. But I myself don't see anything wrong with rabbiting - and I like to go fishing.''

Next: Despite recession Britain remains center of innovation.

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