Labour's Misfortune Gives Major Room On European Issues

BRITIAIN'S Prime Minister John Major and his beleaguered administration have been given some breathing space for the June 9 European Parliament elections amid signs that ideological squabbles within the Labour movement are resurfacing.

The death on May 12 of John Smith, the Labour Party leader whose steadiness and firm grip on party dissidents is already being missed, has thrown the party into uncertainty. Media attention is starting to focus on the race for the party leadership, and the spotlight is moving away from Mr. Major's personal unpopularity and splits within his ruling Conservative Party.

An unexpected result of Smith's absence is that contests for the 84 Euro-seats at stake on June 9 are now more likely to be decided on European rather than domestic issues. Within hours of Smith's death, Margaret Beckett, the Labour Party's acting leader, announced that campaigning by the party for the Euro-elections was being put on hold until the weekend of June 21-22. Major and Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, concurred.

Without Smith at the helm, tensions between left-wing traditionalists and moderates who want to modernize the Labour Party are likely to intensify. Last weekend, four contenders for the leadership emerged. They reflect the left-right rift in the party: Tony Blair (home affairs spokesman) and Gordon Brown (shadow chancellor) are both modernizers; John Prescott (employment) and Robin Cook (trade and industry) are radicals.

Mr. Blair is seen by most analysts as the front-runner, but Labour Party rules call for a lengthy campaign, with trade unionists holding one-third of the votes.

When public campaigning starts up, Major's officials say, the Conservatives will stress a more loosely united Europe than the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats want. They calculate this matches the mood of many Britons, leery of the centralizing tendencies of the European Commission in Brussels.

The prime minister still has to take account of about 40 Conservative members of Parliament (MP) who want a referendum on membership of the European Union. Without the sharp-tongued Smith to contend with, his strategists believe he will be able to get the better of Labour and critics in his own party.

Although Major has been handed an unlooked-for advantage in the run-up to the June 9 elections, he will have to work hard to capitalize on it. Shortly before Smith's death, an opinion poll suggested that the Conservatives would win only 12 Euro-seats, while the Labour Party would win 56, the Liberal Democrats 14, and the Scottish National Party two seats.

Analysis of the poll indicated that former Conservative voters were upset by high taxes and worried about bickering inside their party. In the lull between Smith's death and the start-up of Euro-campaigning, Major's strategists have begun pressing their party's Euro-skeptics to moderate their criticism of Conservative policy on Europe and unite around their leader.

Labour Party hopes of remaining united and persuading the electorate that the Euro-vote should revolve around the Major government's domestic policy failures seem to depend heavily on Ms. Beckett and her ability to assert at least short-term control over the party at a time of high emotion. She was described on May 15 by a senior Labour MP as ``hardworking and sincere'' but ``lacking Smith's ruthlessness.'' The MP feared that under her temporary stewardship, Labour would be ``distracted by the leadership struggle'' and not well-placed to mount a convincing attack on the government's economic policies or to exploit Conservative divisions about Europe.

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