Conservatives Are Glum As Polls, Economic Slump Portend Electoral Losses

As British Parliament opens its last session before general elections, only 1 in 5 voters believes country's economic recovery has begun

BRITISH voters don't appear to be listening to Prime Minister John Major's claims that his Conservative Party deserves another five years in office.

Instead, amid continuing economic downturn, signs are growing that at the general election expected to be called in April or May the country will swing to the Labour opposition.

As the House of Commons returned to Westminster Jan. 13 for the last session before the election, many of Mr. Major's parliamentary supporters were put in a gloomy mood by comments from their constituents and by public opinion polls showing the Conservatives trailing 5 points behind the Labour Party.

The polls reinforce Conservatives' impressions that despite their party's high-profile attempts in the last two weeks to portray the Labour opposition as unfit for office and, if elected, certain to hoist taxes to high levels, voters are not accepting the message.

One Conservative member of Parliament (MP) says: "I cannot remember a time when my people were so depressed. Elections are supposed to be won or lost on the so-called feel-good factor. The trouble is that millions of people have little to feel good about."

The MP's glum assessment supports the findings of a National Opinion Poll (NOP) released Jan. 12 showing Labour 5 points ahead of the Conservatives - enough to give Labour a 23-seat majority in the 650-member House of Commons, where the government now can count on a voting edge of around 100. The poll showed Major well ahead of Labour leader Neil Kinnock in terms of personal popularity, but otherwise there was little for government supporters to welcome.

Especially disturbing for Conservatives is the public's perception of the state of the economy. Only 1 in 5 voters believes economic recovery has begun, despite the insistence of Major and Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont that a long, damaging recession is over. And by almost 2 to 1, the survey showed, voters prefer Labour's "shadow" chancellor of the Exchequer, John Smith, to Mr. Lamont.

In Britain's high streets, shoppers give their own account of why the dismal state of the economy is likely to be the decisive factor on polling day.

"There are sales everywhere," a woman in a south London suburb says, "but I cannot afford to be persuaded to buy. My husband is on short time, and neither of my two sons is earning." She says she voted Conservative in the last three general elections, but will vote Labour this time. "I like John Major but his government has lost control. I think it is time for a change."

Assessments from the business world are no less discouraging for the government. Ratners, the enormous British discount jewelry firm, on Dec. 10 forecast massive losses for 1992. Agreeing to step down as chairman, Gerald Ratner, the firm's founder, blamed calamitous pre-Christmas sales for the fall in profits.

The NOP findings appeared as Lamont and his officials were ending a two-day economic strategy session at which they sketched the outline of the annual budget, expected to be delivered early in March. Lamont is under pressure from Conservative MPs to order a cut in income tax as a way of jump-starting the economy.

But Mr. Kinnock and his supporters promised that if the Conservatives cut taxes, a Labour government would restore them to their previous level.

"The country does not need quick fixes." Kinnock said. "It requires new policies that will produce sustained, investment-led growth."

Recent reports said Lamont was thinking of measures to raise tax thresholds, taking 500,000 low-paid people out of the income tax system and cutting the tax bill of every wage earner.

If Lamont does that, Mr. Smith says, the government will have to find money elsewhere. He forecasts an increase in the value-added tax, currently 17.5 percent, to make up the difference. Conservatives, Smith says, are "suffering from policy paralysis" and are "unable to explain away the fact that under their stewardship the country is in a mess."

Major conceded that economic recovery was proving slower than earlier government forecasts, but warned that Labour, given a chance, would increase taxes sharply and wipe out the recovery that is already beginning.

Meanwhile both main parties were trying to assess the political fallout from the Jan. 9 British Steel decision to shut down the giant Ravenscraig plant in Scotland, with the loss of thousands of jobs in an already depressed area.

A significant element in the mood of voters is sagging support for the Social and Liberal Democrat Party. The latest opinion polls show its support at just 12 percent. A polling analyst says voters who had hedged by saying they would support the Liberal Democrats are returning to the main parties, particularly Labour.

On the Conservatives' trouble in making up ground, a Labour strategist says: "Governments aim to make the political cycle and the economic cycle coincide. They try to call general elections when things are looking up. John Major's misfortune is to have to face a general election when the two cycles are out of kilter. The voters know the economy is in poor shape, and the prime minister cannot disguise that fact."

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