Britain's Losing Labourites Seek A Leader With a Winning Image

After 18 years out of power, Labour leaders are divided over what it takes to win, and the traditional role of unions

ON July 18, Britain's Labour Party aims to elect a leader who can reverse the party's decline.

The mood of the party leadership is somber. Labour leader Neil Kinnock decided he had no choice but to resign after his party's fourth general election defeat in April.

"Most Labour supporters expected we'd be back in power. They're shocked, stunned, that they're not. It's 18 years since we won a general election. We might never win another," says Labour Party activist Bob Miller.

The Conservative government is still in power, and the prime minister decides when the next election is held, so Mr. Miller is not expecting his party to win next time around either.

"When it came to [election] day," he continues, "the country simply didn't trust Labour to govern."

At 52, Miller wears a cloth cap and is a skilled engineer. He lost his job at a factory four years ago, and never expects to work again. He has never voted for any party other than Labour.

"This might not be a happy time for us," left-wing Labour parliamentarian Dennis Skinner concedes, "but we have got rid of an electoral liability - because that's what Kinnock was." Mr. Skinner, the scourge of the center and right of his party, is known to friend and political foe alike as "The beast of Bolsover," the town he represents.

But the leadership candidates have little in common with either Skinner or Miller.

John Smith looks like a banker. In fact, he is a successful middle-class Edinburgh lawyer. He was Labour's finance spokesman in the April election and was responsible for the party's tax proposals. They planned to tax anyone earning over $65,000 a year; many voters saw the plans as a disaster. But Mr. Smith does not apologize for them. Neither does he apologize for being distinctly pro-European.

His rival, New Zealand-born Bryan Gould, was an Oxford don and a career diplomat before entering the House of Commons. He has attacked Smith's tax plans and is much more skeptical about Europe than his opponent.

To win, party strategists say, Labour must move beyond its traditional trade union support. In radio programs in which both candidates presented their election platforms, neither made significant mention of trade unions. A decade ago, that omission would have been unthinkable.

"The left and the unions were frozen out of this election," Skinner says. "They changed the rules so there hasn't been a candidate with any links at all with the party's real past." He called on his party bosses to forget about what he described as "the chattering middle-class Labour voter from Hamstead." His message for the new leader is: "Labour only wins power when it has the support of the working-class vote. These are the people we must appeal to."

THE pollsters do not back up that view. They say that in April's election Labour did get out its core vote. What Labour candidates failed to do was to attract people who were undecided or from the center Liberal Democrats. MORI pollster Brian Gosschalk says the Conservatives picked up many of the floating voters, and it was that which won them the elections.

Mr. Gould supports a widely held view among Labour thinkers that women hold the key to the party's future. Nine percent more women voted Conservative than Labour in the last election.

Claire Short, a leading Labour member of Parliament who is expected to have influence with the new party leadership, says Labour must lead the way in getting women into Parliament and attract women voters with immediate legislation targeted to their needs. She wants help for working mothers with child-care needs and related problems.

Smith also supports a Commission for Social Justice. Backing him is a pressure group called the Low Pay Unit. Its director, Christopher Pond, says his unit's research shows that Britain's welfare state, set up by a Labour government after World War II, can no longer cope with the poverty that exists in 1990s Britain.

Mr. Gosschalk says Labour has a mountain to climb in the polls. Since April, Labour's support in the polls has plummeted, while the Conservatives' has shot up.

But Labour prospects are not hopeless, Gosschalk says, because the prime minister's personality is the key to the Conservatives' success. "John Major's popularity was a critical factor in the government's election win," Gosschalk says. "If his image becomes tarnished, or he fails to deliver on his policies, Labour's time could come again."

The trade unions once played a big part in any Labour government. Many voters now view that connection with suspicion.

The Conservatives depict the links between the Labour Party and union bosses as sinister. Labour has responded by keeping unions at arm's length.

The unions are both sad and angry that the political party they gave birth to is now embarrassed by its family. The new Labour leader will be getting some strong messages in the weeks to come that they will not be marginalized.

The message from Bill Morris is clear. The general secretary of Britain's biggest labor union, the Transport and General Workers' Union, says that unions are a link between Labour and 5 million working people and their families. Labour, he says, must nurture these links, not sever them.

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