Britain's Left Takes New Role: Guardian Of the Pocketbook

BRITAIN'S revamped Labour Party is out to prove that the customer is always right.

Only 48 hours after Labour voted to abandon its long-held Marxist commitment to nationalize industry on April 29, the party shifted from jealously guarding the rights of the working class to guarding spare change in the household pocketbook.

Sensing the weakness of Prime Minister John Major's Conservative government, Labour leader Tony Blair is promising to do battle on behalf of consumers: Labour researchers say they have endured hard times in a free-for-all market economy, engineered by former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Labour's youthful leader, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown, one of his top lieutenants, unveiled the new strategy on the eve of local elections May 4 in England and Wales, in which the ruling Conservatives are widely forecast to do poorly.

Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown declared that for the past 15 years, millions of consumers had been exploited by banks, loan and insurance companies, and privatized utilities.

These agencies, Brown said, had been allowed to operate in a largely unregulated commercial environment. If Labour wins the next national elections coming within the next two years, Blair would try to encourage a kinder, gentler market: Companies lending money or selling other financial services would have to publish ''league tables'' giving customers full price, cost, and performance comparisons, Brown said.

In the last two or three years, trading banks have been widely criticized for making excessive profits. A series of highly publicized cases showed that insurance companies have misled customers about retirement pension rights.

And privatized water utilities, for example, have hiked prices far beyond the level of inflation and paid their top executives massive salary increases. Labour says all this has been possible because of the economic and commercial climate fostered by Mrs. Thatcher in the 12 years she was prime minister.

''Blair and Brown have every reason to believe that when they speak up for consumers they are hitting a sensitive [point with] the British electorate at large,'' a Labour strategist says.

Now that grass-roots party members helped defeat trade unions in ending Labour's commitment to nationalize industry, consumer protection has moved to the top of Labour's to-do list.

''No old dogma, no tired thinking, no soft options will be allowed to stand in the way of this policy agenda,'' Blair said.

Prime Minister Major, already on the defensive because of his Conservative Party's growing unpopularity, attacked Blair after his victory over the trade unions. He called the Labour leader ''just a sound-bite politician leading a soap-powder party.''

Adopting language that seemed to betray irritation bordering on anger, Major implied that Labour wasn't sincere in diluting its hard-line Socialist roots. ''The debate was the biggest attempt to con the gullible since the wolf dressed up as Little Red Riding Hood's grandmother,'' he said. Labour, Major complained, was trying to ''steal Conservative clothes.''

Blair responded coolly by saying that the Conservatives were ''intruders'' on the political scene. He claimed that among Labour voters, nine out of 10 favored the new policies.

Even though elections are months away, the new market-friendly Labour Party has the Conservatives on the run. Opinion polls indicate that Labour has a 35-point lead over the Conservatives across the country.

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