Britain's Labour Party looks for leg to stand on

After the initial shock of the Brighton bomb blast that was intended to wipe out the entire British Cabinet, the government's response has been predictable: Stay calm. Sound strong.

In times of national crisis, the country rallies around the government in power.

Much the same has happened with the spreading coal miners' strike. Until such time as Labour leader Neil Kinnock distances himself from striking mine leader Arthur Scargill, political pundits from both the left and the right tend to see Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher gaining at Mr. Kinnock's expense.

''I'm grateful that the miners' strike is not happening in an election year, '' said a relieved Malcolm Wicks, a Labour Party delegate from Croydon at the recent Labour conference at Blackpool.

The government's Achilles' heel remains its economic policies, especially the persistent unemployment problem. If unemployment remains at its current high level or climbs even higher, then the political risks could overtake the government within the next couple of years.

What then? Is the Labour Party the obvious alternative or will it be the Alliance of the Liberals and Social Democrats?

Such musings come readily to political analysts sifting through a wealth of possibilities after the completion of the annual political party conferences.

With the political ground shifting as much as it has in recent years to the right, the Labour Party's credibility as an alternative government has been dented by what has widely been seen as its lurch to the left at the Blackpool conference. This is interpreted as making the party unelectable.

While this has both ruling Conservatives and opposition Alliance parties rubbing their hands, there is some question as to whether Labour has moved as far left as initial reports of the party conference might suggest.

Peter Riddell, the respected political editor of the Financial Times and author of ''The Thatcher Government,'' doubts whether Labour has veered so far to the left.

What has happened, he says, is not so much a takeover of the party at the national level, as the far left's having taken charge at the local level.

Of greater consequence to Mr. Riddell than any left-right power play was the rise of the unconstitutionalist element in the party which ''condones if not encourages the breaking of the law.''

While Mr. Riddell sees the miners' strike as instrumental in reviving or rallying the ''confrontational, emotional wing of the party,'' he does not believe that the party has swung to the left on such basic policy issues as defense and economics. If anything, it has moved slightly in the other direction.

Andrew Gamble, reader in political theory and institutions at Sheffield University and author of ''The Rise of the Resolute Right,'' agrees.

''There hasn't been a marked shift to the left in terms of policy. If anything, there has been a slight movement back from the last election on defense.''

Dr. Gamble says that on economic policy, too, there has been momentum in the other direction. He is referring specifically to the highly publicized comments of deputy Labour leader Roy Hattersley, who is reexam-ining his party's attitude to nationalization, hitherto one of the sacred cows of the Labour Party.

Mr. Hattersley is redefining the notion of common ownership away from state nationalization. According to Dr. Gamble, Mr. Hattersley has met with success in expressing these views to ''quite a number on the left of Mr. Kinnock.''

Despite the largely negative press accorded the Labour Party conference in Blackpool, largely from passions aroused by the miners' strike, Labour delegates left the conference much more united than in previous years.

As one political analyst put it, referring to the end of the debilitating power struggle between the left and right:''The bloodletting has gone. That period has passed.''

Tony Benn, patrician turned politician and standard-bearer of the far left in the Labour Party, said after the recent conference: ''Morale is the highest I've seen it since 1945.''

According to the veteran Labour politician, the Labour Party has been transformed since 1983 because of the number of people - in London, Liverpool, and Sheffield, as well as the striking miners - who are protesting ''the unjust laws of the government.''

Whether such confidence and unity can produce electoral victories is another matter.

Mr. Riddell's own guess of what a snap election might yield, provided the bomb blast was not taken into account, was that the Conservatives would win very comfortably.

But he also foresaw the Alliance gaining ''quite a lot of Tory seats.'' He says the Alliance is scoring well enough in the opinion polls at this early stage to have a base on which to build its campaign for the 1988 general election.

Dr. Gamble also says the Conservatives would win a snap election. He sees Labour gaining some strength with Alliance support remaining roughly the same. At the last election Labour pulled in 28 percent of the vote. The Alliance was close behind with 26 percent.

''The problem for the Labour Party is that they have to come in second in the next election,'' Gamble says. Anything worse, he suggests, and they could no longer remain a force in British politics.

But any suggestion of a major breakthrough for the Alliance gets scant respect from well-known commentator Ferdinand Mount, who previously worked closely with Mrs. Thatcher.

The problem with the Social Democrats, he says, is that they lack historic roots. By contrast, the Labour Party has a long and rich tradition of struggle.

That is one reason he doesn't anticipate the disintegration of the Labour Party as some analysts have suggested.

While the Labour Party's constituency has contracted over the years - the decline in manual workers is a major factor - the conventional wisdom is that the Labour Party will be around for some time to come even if it cannot dislodge the Conservatives from power in the foreseeable future.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.