A BATTLE royal is shaping up between Britain's ruling Conservatives and the Labour Party opposition for the support of crucially important middle-class voters.
The first shots in a campaign likely to last until the next general election two or three years from now were fired by Tony Blair, Labour's new leader. Since his election last month, he has begun reshaping his party's policies in fields such as taxes, the family, education, and law and order. Mr. Blair aims to make Labour policies attractive to the 5 million or more floating voters who will likely decide who governs Britain for the rest of the century.
In a series of speeches and interviews, Blair has charged that the government has ``ripped apart the social fabric of Britain'' and ``triggered a crime wave.'' He claims the Thatcher and Major governments created an ``atomized, uncaring, rootless society.''
In another much-repeated theme, Blair insists the purpose of social action by government is to ``liberate individual potential.''
Blair is promising to find ways to help white-collar workers, who make up about one-third of the country's 2.8 million unemployed, retrain and rebuild their lives. Labour traditionally has concentrated on winning working-class support, often by promising to tax the rich.
Major on the rebound
Prime Minister John Major, head of a party that has been in power for 15 years, has responded by holding out the prospect of sweeping reforms aimed at giving citizens more power.
In a highly publicized address to Conservative backbenchers before Parliament's summer recess, he said the government should encourage individual initiative, tip the balance away from state to personal pensions, and ``minimize interference by politicians and bureaucrats'' in the lives of ordinary people.
Aides say Mr. Major, who published a series of ``citizens' charters'' two years ago, is planning to refine and relaunch the scheme to give people more say over how schools, hospitals, and government agencies are run. The charters spell out citizens' rights in relation to a wide range of state services.
Many believe that the Conservatives in 1979 under Margaret Thatcher gained power by wooing a large section of Britain's middle-class vote away from Labour and toward policies that stressed individual initiative, industrial privatization, and curbs on the power of trade unions.
Robert Worcester, chairman of the MORI polling organization, says Labour must win back the voters it lost 15 years ago if it is to break the Conservatives' hold on government. He says recent by-elections show signs that the important middle-class vote has swung toward Labour.
Blair and his advisers are determined to make this a permanent trend and wrest crucial parliamentary seats in southern England from Conservatives.
Lord Rees-Mogg, former editor of the London Times and a leading political analyst, stresses the political role of the middle class. ``Britain nowadays is a middle-class country,'' Rees-Mogg says. ``Tony Blair is the new middle-class man. Unless the Conservatives can win back the support of the middle class, they are bound to lose the next election.''
Rees-Mogg believes Labour lost the 1992 general election because it threatened to put up income taxes to pay for increases in social spending and ``frightened off'' middle-class voters.
There are clear signs that Blair will ensure his party does not repeat the mistake. His aides say he is determined to hold taxes down and put clamps on state spending. He contrasts this with the Conservatives' decision last year to slap a tax on domestic fuel and increase social security taxes.
Blair has also promised to be ``tough on crime, and on the causes of crime.'' In Labour's leadership campaign, he argued that increased law-breaking was caused by high unemployment resulting from Conservative government policies.
Turncoats who donate
Blair's strategy of stressing middle-class values is already bearing fruit. Sir Richard Greenbury, chairman of Marks and Spencer, Britain's most profitable chain of ``high street'' or suburban stores, says his company may contribute to Labour Party funds. At the last general election in 1992, the company supported the Conservatives.
David Sainsbury, head of a high street grocery chain, contributed 5,000 pounds ($7,700) to Blair's leadership campaign.
Twenty-seven large companies have applied to have exhibition stands at the Labour Party's annual autumn conference.
In a move that Conservative insiders say alarmed Major, Rupert Murdoch, owner of five British national newspapers and Sky Television, said Aug. 8 that he ``could imagine'' his traditionally Conservative-supporting papers backing Labour at the next election. Peter Stoddart, editor of the London Times, said he shared his proprietor's thinking.
Leading figures in the Liberal Democratic Party have said Blair would make a good prime minister. Lord Rogers - who helped to found the now-defunct Social Democratic Party, which later merged with the Liberal Party - called him ``the man for the second half of the 1990s.'' Lord Jenkins, a former Labour Foreign Secretary and now a Liberal Democrat, described him as ``the most exciting Labour choice'' for the past 30 years.
Liberal Democrat sources say these endorsements have infuriated Paddy Ashdown, the party's leader, who also hopes to attract middle-class votes at the expense of the Conservatives.
Rees-Mogg says these developments leave Conservatives ``a party staring over a precipice.''
Major will return from a holiday in Portugal to read drafts of speeches intended to persuade voters that the Conservatives, under his leadership, can satisfy middle-class aspirations.
One source said the prime minister would put ``clear water'' between Conservative party policies and those of Labour.
``We don't need a lesson in civics from Tony Blair,'' the source said.