In Bid to Rule Britain, Labour Seeks Tax to Bolster Education
LONDON — AFTER 16 years in the political wilderness, Britain's opposition Labour Party is making a brighter future for young people a central theme of its bid to oust the ailing, ruling Conservatives.
Tony Blair, Labour's leader, says that if he becomes prime minister, he will emphasize education and limit classroom sizes to a maximum of 30 pupils.
Mr. Blair also told delegates to the party's annual conference Oct. 3 in Brighton that Labour would make a ''decisive shift'' toward modernizing Britain. ''It falls upon a new generation, and a new revitalized Labour Party to lead this country in the long climb back into the premier league of nations,'' Blair said.
Labour has been out of office since Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the Conservatives swept to power in 1979. Mrs. Thatcher began a wholesale privatization of British industry and slashed the power of trade unions.
Blair is Labour's fifth leader since 1979 and has spent the past year nudging his party toward moderate, centrist positions in the hope that he can convince the British public that Labour is, in his words, ''fit for government.''
His speech was seen by political analysts here as a potentially decisive turning point for his party. Jon Sopel, author of a biography of the Labour leader, says it signaled the moment when Blair turned from simply getting a firm grip on his party to laying out the policies on which Labour will fight to become the majority party.
Blair set out to modernize the party when he was elected leader 16 months ago. At the conference, he promised that once in office Labour would impose a u1 billion ($1.6 billion) tax on Britain's highly profitable, privatized gas, electric, and water utilities.
Labour would use the money to ''wipe out'' unemployment among youths. Nearly 1 million young people are among Britain's 2.6 million unemployed.
Peter Riddell, a leading political analyst, says Blair's emphasis on education and the plight of unemployed youths is ''central to his strategy for fighting the next general election.'' But he notes also that Labour's relationship with trade unions is ''a potential handicap.''
Blair succeeded in persuading the unions to drop a demand that Labour would promise to raise the minimum wage to u4.15 ($6.60) an hour. Before the conference, union leaders agreed that Labour would set a minimum wage after the election.
Blair's stress on boosting education and limiting classroom sizes comes at a time when some schools crowd 60 or more pupils into one room, and school and university budgets have been heavily slashed by government austerity programs.
Most analysts agree that in stressing education and the plight of young unemployed people, Blair is hitting a sensitive issue. ''Countries that win the race for knowledge will win the race in the next century,'' Blair told the Labour delegates.
''Lifelong learning is a key element in economic success,'' Blair added. ''Britain is simply not equipped to meet the challenges of the new millennium. We must modernize or decline forever.''
The ruling Conservatives have only a bare majority in the House of Commons and are more than 20 points behind Labour in most opinion polls. Trying to hold on to or increase that margin Blair is also bidding for the votes of older Britons. Two years ago the government imposed a value-added tax of 8 percent on domestic fuel, a move that hit hard on retirees with fixed incomes.
Labour's finance spokesman, Gordon Brown, pledged Oct. 2 to reduce the tax to 5 percent - the minimum allowed under European Union rules - and challenged the Conservative government to do the same in its annual budget next month.
Labour's annual party gathering opened in the knowledge that by law a general election must be held by April 1997. It could be called earlier if Prime Minister John Major so decides. Analysts generally agree that Mr. Major will not risk calling an election sooner unless his Conservative Party begins to regain popularity.
On the eve of Blair's address, Conservative Party chairman Brian Mawhinney attempted to steal Blair's thunder. Just hours before Blair was due to outline the new policies, Mr. Mawhinney charged that Labour, which has its historical roots in the trade union movement, was still in the grip of organized labor.
He claimed that at a secret meeting in September Blair had ''done a deal'' with the unions ''to make sure they keep quiet'' until the general election.
Blair does not deny that a meeting with union leaders was held, but Labour officials called it a routine gathering.