Feeling Smug, British Labour Starts to Bicker

Bob Dole, the Republican candidate for president, is not the only opposition politician under pressure to reassess his strategy in pursuit of high office.

Across the Atlantic, Tony Blair, leader of Britain's Labour Party, faces problems, too, even though his party is of the opposite political stripe from Mr. Dole's.

Opinion polls are offering growing evidence that Labour is earning a reputation for internal policy splits. And party infighting may threaten Labour's prospects of winning Britain's next general election that must be held by next spring, Mr. Blair's advisers privately say.

Unlike Dole, Blair is at least 20 points out in front in opinion polls on popularity. But the looming prospect of power has opened up divisions in Labour that rival the internal tensions troubling the Conservatives.

The "naked ambition" of three of Blair's most senior colleagues has put them at loggerheads with each other on policy issues and is affecting the Labour leader's ability to keep a grip on his party, says political analyst Robert Harris.

The three are Gordon Brown, the "shadow" finance minister; Robin Cook, the party's senior foreign affairs spokesman; and John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader.

Last week, it emerged that the three differ widely on such key issues as financial policy and the future of the welfare state. "A novelist would be hard put to invent a potentially more explosive mixture than that offered by Labour's 'Big Four'," Mr. Harris contends.

AN NOP opinion poll carried out on May 16 showed that 38 percent of voters thought Labour is as divided as the Conservatives. And among former Conservative voters - a group Blair is eager to win over - almost 60 percent see Labour as divided. The poll showed also that fewer than 1 voter in 7 believes what Blair says.

Until now, Blair has been able to portray the Major government as deeply split on European policy and on whether to order tax cuts ahead of the general election. Such divisions remain, but Blair's problem in dealing with splits in party ranks is in some ways more difficult than Major's.

Labour has a long history of disagreements between its moderate and radical wings. The party's failure to unite was a key reason for its defeat at four successive general elections.

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