Britain's Labourites: soul searching for a broader electoral appeal

Britain's ``working-class'' party is going upscale. Only four months after a third straight electoral defeat by the Conservatives, the leader of Britain's Labour Party, Neil Kinnock, has torn up the party's general-election manifesto at the party's annual conference in the south coast resort of Brighton.

While the election manifesto called the elimination of poverty and unemployment Labour's top priority, it has become clear at this week's conference that Labour's new priority is to broaden its base of support. Historically, Labour has been seen as the party of ``the have-nots,'' the traditional unionist party, the party of leftist ideologies.

But within the past decade the rich-poor divide has widened under Conservative leadership, and Britain has become more and more a nation of ``haves.'' At the same time, Labour has seen its core of support shrink.

In his keynote speech to the conference on Tuesday, Mr. Kinnock urged the party to come to terms with the changing face of Britain. The Labour Party, Kinnock said, must ``face social realities'' if it is to emerge from it's eight-year status as the opposition party.

Kinnock, together with Labour's Trade and Industry spokesman, Brian Gould, are leading what has become a drive for ``popular socialism.''

``We can't gain power and secure social justice for the disadvantaged unless we successfully appeal to those who want and enjoy higher living standards,'' Gould told delegates at the start of the conference. Though those on the far left of Labour have jeered at the party's impending yuppification, the wheels of reform are rolling.

This week, delegates to the conference have rejected a return to Labour's old-style policy of nationalization, under which major industries are brought under government ownership and management.

As further tacit recognition of the success of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's program of privatization, delegates to the Labour conference are considering altering the party's attitude against shareholding.

The Thatcher government's recent sale of shares in once-nationalized industries such as British Telecom, British Gas, and Rolls-Royce has been successful, and such a change in the Labour position would bring party policy in line with attitudes of the young and growing middle class.

Also likely is a new Labour platform of social ownership where workers in both public and private companies would be allocated shares in their firms. Social ownership might give Labour an added attraction in today's more investment-conscious Britain.

Perhaps more significant is the delegates' endorsement this week of a fundamental change in the way parliamentary candidates are chosen at election time. The delegates have thrown out the old system which gave unions and top donators the greatest influence in picking candidates. Its replacement: a one-man, one-vote system which democratizes the party and is likely to broaden its appeal.

Such reforms reflect a changing attitude within the party that individuals are a greater political asset than ideologies. But the new emphasis on the individual brings Labour to the crossroads: ``Can a party hang on to its collectivist doctrine and at the same time attract an individualist electorate?''

Kinnock is making no mistake about which road he wants the party to follow, saying that Labour policy reform knows ``no sacred cows'' - not even the party's hard-line non-nuclear defense posture.

[Kinnock said Thursday in a televised interview that a future Labour government may use Trident missiles as a bargaining chip in nuclear disarmament talks.]

The Labour Party's future has not been decided at the Brighton conference - only Labour's direction. Political commentators say it will take several years for the party to get back on its feet after almost a decade in disarray.

Defining just where the party stands on positions across the board, may be what is needed to win back the hearts - and votes - of Britons. That was made clear in post-election analysis, as well as in a recent Gallup Poll from London's Sunday Telegraph in which 62 percent of the respondents said they were unclear what Labour stands for.

A story in Friday's Monitor on Britain's Labour Party stated that the party had instituted a one-man, one-vote system of choosing parliamentary candidates. In fact, the Labour Party conference backed the establishment of an electoral college that gives the unions 40 percent of the voting power in local constituencies.

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