BRITISH voters face the prospect of a protracted political battle in which clashes of personality will submerge the issues as the country heads for a general election.Nobody, except perhaps Prime Minister John Major, knows exactly when the election will be held. It could come as late as July 9 next year, but is likely to be called for April or May. But as members of Parliament returned to Westminster Oct. 14, many were convinced that the coming weeks will be dominated by political fireworks between Mr. Major and Neil Kinnock, the Labour Party leader. Austin Mitchell, a Labour MP, forecast that the Commons in coming weeks would be "more like a bear pit than an arena for serious debate. The Conservatives are desperate to hang on. Labour is desperate to get in," he says. "It is going to be a very abusive, negative session." John MacGregor, Conservative leader of the House of Commons, conceded last weekend that "keeping election fever out of the proceedings may not be easy." But he insisted that many issues sharply divide the Conservative and Labour parties. "Neil Kinnock wants the country to spend its way out of the recession by mobilizing huge quantities of public money," Mr. MacGregor said. "We are determined to place the emphasis on private capital and hold down inflation." The Conservatives can claim to have lowered inflation to 4.1 percent - the lowest in the European Community - but unemployment is rising toward 2.5 million. John Smith, Labour's economy spokesman, says the Conservatives have cut inflation by precipitating a deep recession, particularly in manufacturing. Robin Cook, Labour's chief health spokesman, says that a huge policy gulf separates his party from the Conservatives and that Labour is well placed to exploit it. "They are determined to privatize the National Health Service [NHS]," he said. "When we are elected, that will stop." The NHS, inaugurated after World War II, employs a million people and offers free health care to all citizens. The Conservatives, however, are attempting to remove hospitals from the public sector and place them under self-governing trusts charged to run them on commercial principles. They have also encouraged private health insurance, which Labour says erodes the NHS and threatens to create a two-tier medical system. Other policy differences divide the Conservatives and Labour. Major says his government will continue building nuclear submarines and equipping them with American-supplied Trident missiles. Mr. Kinnock says a massive British deterrent is not needed. Britain's third party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), has announced distinctive policies. It would like to introduce proportional voting at general elections and increase taxes to pay for better education. But senior Liberal Democrats fear that Paddy Ashdown, their personable leader, will get caught up in a political "beauty contest." Alan Beith, LDP economics spokesman, pointed to "Conservative worries that their party has run out of steam" and predicted the ruling party will try to exploit Major's agreeable personality. Through the summer, the public opinion polls seesawed. As parliament reassembled, Labour, with around 40 percent, was slightly ahead of the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats had about 15 percent. Fighting the campaign on television will hinder a campaign on the issues. It will be the first time parliamentary argument in the run-up to a general election has been shown on nationwide television. From now on, every week, Major and Kinnock will face each other at prime minister's question time, with the cameras rolling. It could provide a good opportunity to give viewers a better idea of how the two leaders approach the issues. Instead, if past example is a pointer, "P.M.'s Questions" will be an occasion for gladiatorial confrontations as the opposition leader tries to embarrass the prime minister with a hail of barbed inquiries. The main parties have just ended a month-long season of annual party conferences. Last week Major drew a 10-minute standing ovation from flag-waving, placard-toting Conservatives in Blackpool. They were responding to a deliberately low-key speech in which he stressed his humble origins, and said of his job as prime minister: ve got it. I like it. And with your help I am going to keep it." A week earlier Kinnock was equally keen to project his personality to the more than 30 million voters who will shape the general election result. According to Mr. Mitchell, the British public will tire rapidly of the razzmatazz that threatens to engulf the political process. "People will turn away bemused. They don't particularly like this kind of spectacle and want to hear the issues properly debated," he said. Independent commentators share this view. Peter Hennessey, a political analyst at Strathclyde University, says the traditional Queen's Speech to Parliament on Oct. 31 may be the last chance to add substance the political debate. It will contain details of Major's Citizens' Charter in which the government will attempt to force utilities such as railways and the electricity and water authorities to give customers better value for money. But Mr. Hennessey doubts whether the Queen's Speech will turn out to be a springboard for a serious election campaign. "The prospect of this electoral threnody continuing for six months or more is almost unendurable," he said. "But it seems likely to do so."