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A surprise start for Britain's new party

"The old politics is dying. The battle to decide what the new politics will be like is just beginning." When Britain's Shirley Williams concluded her recent book with these words, she could hardly have known how well this battle's first electoral skirmish would come out from her point of view. Her political colleague Roy Jenkins brought their infant Social Democratic Party 42 percent of the vote in a parliamentary by-election -- narrowly losing to the strongly favored Labour Party candidate and leaving the candidate of the nation's ruling Conservatives with so few votes he had to forfeit his election deposit. Now Mrs. Williams is seen as a likely standard-bearer for the Social Democrats and their allied Liberals in the next by-election if the Liberal's already designated candidate agrees to step aside.

In that event the battle over the new politics might begin in earnest. Former Labourite Jenkins, recently president of the European Commission, represented both the moderate, anticommunist domestic policies and outward-looking international policies that Mrs. Williams sees as part of the new politics. How far would she go in a by-election toward articulating the all-out vision of "politics for people" -- not just Britain's people but the people of the world -- that she feels the times demand?

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The discussion so far has tended to see the Social Democrats in relation to the other parties -- less left-wing than the extreme elements of the Labour Party from which they split; less tight-fisted than the Conservatives they also challenge. But, if the Social Democrats simply rely on being the beneficiaries of public disaffection from the major parties, they risk being left in the cold whenever entrenched party loyalties reassert themselves. They will need to offer an alternative of their own to create a lasting constituency.

Is there a constituency for Mrs. William's version of the new politics? It includes: mandated freedom of information; strengthened self-government; industrial democracy required by law; participation in management of social services by those affected; decentralization of industry; a short-run incomes policy and a national campaign to explain the need for it; housing and education policies to reduce the influence of class. All this combined with the vision of Britons looking beyond internal problems to the dangers of the arms race and the millions of poor and hungry in the world:

"If politics is for people, it is for these people too, whose cultures have been threatened by our technologies and whose resources have been plundered for our factories. the governments of the industrialized world could harness their own unemployed resources to the almost infinite needs of the Third World; the money to finance a new Marshall Plan could be found by diverting to it part of current arms expenditure, by using the payments surpluses of the oil producers and by a tax on gross national products. . . . Given the hope of prosperity, developing countries would begin to abandon their swords for ploughshares."

In relation to the practical politics with which Mrs. Williams wryly contrasts it, this all might seem academic. But Britons may at least have to consciously reject or accept it now that the Social Democrats have caugh t their ear.

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