Radicals Tug to Left, Labour Stays Centered

Blair keeps party's eye on 'middle England' voters

Over the past two years Tony Blair has nudged, prodded, and goaded the opposition Labour Party to the center ground of British politics.

At Labour's annual conference (Sept. 30 - Oct. 4), the youthful-looking lawyer, who took over the leadership of the party in 1994, has been readying a challenge to the ruling Conservatives at a fast-approaching general election next year.

Instead of being a movement of the radical left, Labour, Mr. Blair insists, is a party of political moderation and restraint, poised for victory in an election that must be held in the next eight months.

To reach this point, Blair has had to convince a majority of voters of so-called "middle England" that the party, which he calls "New Labour," has distanced itself from militant trade unionism and that once in office it would pursue prudent economic and social policies.

'Tax the millionaires'

But when Labour's rank and file gathered at Blackpool Sept. 30, Blair discovered that it was easier to satisfy ordinary voters about his credentials to become Britain's next prime minister than to sweep card-carrying party delegates along with him on his crusade of moderation.

In response to a pre-conference claim by Blair that "we are the center party now," Diane Abbot, a hard-left member of Parliament, attacked her leader's plan to end state-paid benefits for 16-year-olds and declared: "Tax the millionaires instead."

Blair found himself under pressure, too, from Lady Castle, a Labour Cabinet minister in the 1970s who still commands a solid left-wing following, to increase state pensions for the elderly.

Even more difficult for Blair, who claims to be committed to helping the poor and needy, was a call from Robin Cook, a senior party spokesman, for Labour to reach out to "the dispossessed."

The London Times Sept. 30 commented that "some constituency activists have found the pace of change in the party too fast to stomach."

In the end, Blair was able to swing a majority of delegates behind his middle-of-the-road policies and avoided commitment to costly new welfare programs and tax measures aimed at well-off middle-class voters.

But Labour's top strategists concede that portraying the party as social democrat, rather than socialist, and as determined to keep a tight rein on government spending, is a tough job when a broad and vocal radical fringe continues to exist within Labour's ranks.

John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, said Sept. 29 that he had "misgivings" about Blair's scrapping of state ownership of industry as a plank of Labour policy.

Mr. Prescott, who has close links to trade unions, is reported to be unhappy about Blair's wish to loosen the party's ties with organized labor. Trade unionists provide the party with more than half of its funds.

Labour's big sell

A key factor in maintaining Labour's big lead in opinion polls so far has been Blair's personality. Political analyst Peter Riddell describes him as "a politician for the television age, generally smiling and appearing as the reasonable human face of the Labour Party."

Edward Pearce, another commentator, notes that Blair "reassures people," and that Conservative Party strategists "covet" Blair's political abilities.

Those abilities have helped to propel Labour into a commanding lead in virtually all public-opinion polls in recent months. A MORI poll Sept. 23 put Labour 23 points ahead. MORI also showed that Labour led on 8 of the 10 issues seen by voters as the most important facing Britain.

Polls also show Blair far ahead of Prime Minister John Major in personal popularity. Mr. Major's popularity is the lowest of a prime minister since polling began 50 years ago.

But there is more to Blair's success than personality. He has strived to project Labour as a party no longer interested in heavy state spending. Speaking ahead of the Blackpool conference, he stressed that, once in office, Labour would not be a "tax-and-spend" party.

The real task for Labour, he said, was to turn Britain into a "skills superpower" so that its economy would grow and produce the prosperity needed to ensure better lives for all.

Blair concedes that it will not be easy to hold on to Labour's lead in the polls right through to election day. But he claims to be confident that the appeal of "New Labour" is reaching a large part of the electorate.

"Some people do not like the concept of New Labour. But there is no doubt in my mind that New Labour is not just the route to power. It is right," Blair said.

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