By-election victory gives Britain's Labour Party boost for next general vote

Has the Labour Party election bandwagon, mired in internal squabbling over how to deal with the militant left, finally begun to roll? And if so, has the party's recent triumph in the by-election in London's Fulham District provided it with enough momentum to push it forward to victory at the next general election, scheduled for 1988?

These are the intriguing possibilities following Labour's resounding success in turning a Conservative majority of 4,789 at the last general election into a handsome Labour win by 3,503 votes.

Nick Raynsford, Britain's newest member of Parliament, and regarded as the best candidate in the field of eight, garnered 44 percent of last Thursday's vote. The Conservative candidate came in second with 34.9 percent of the vote. The Fulham win was Labour's best performance since October 1982, and a win that the party needed if it was to remain a potent force in the next general elections.

Equally striking was the debacle of the much vaunted Social Democratic Party (SDP). That party has pulled off some electrifying victories -- as at Portsmouth in the south of England, and Radnor and Brecon in Wales -- coming from behind and doing far better than the opinion polls had been predicting during the campaign. The 18.7 percent SDP vote this time was their worst performance since the party was formed by members who broke away from the Labour Party five years ago.

On the day of the election, SDP leader David Owen, who had already virtually conceded defeat, said the economic profile of Fulham -- half rich and half poor -- made it too polarized for any party other than the Conservatives and Labour to make any headway.

Mr. Raynsford's Labour win was seen as a highly creditable performance by a man who went out of his way to make Labour appear a responsible, moderate, mainstream opposition party. This is precisely the image Labour's leader, Neil Kinnock, is trying to convey to the public. Raynsford's victory will shore up Mr. Kinnock's image as a Labour leader trying to break away from, and shun, the far left of his party and occupy the middle ground.

The Conservatives, who were bracing themselves for defeat, explained away the loss of the seat as a case of midterm blues. Yet political analysts are wary of drawing sweeping national conclusions from the election results in a district where the half-rich, half-poor polarization helps the Conservatives and Labour most. A much clearer national picture will emerge after two more by-elections, scheduled for next month in Yorkshire and Derbyshire constituencies.

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