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Britain's Labour Party Faces `Watershed' Battle

Traditionalists face off against those demanding deep changes

BRITAIN'S Labour Party, battered by its fourth successive general election defeat, has begun the search for a new leader - and for a fresh set of policies capable of breaking the Conservative Party's tenacious grip on power.

Even before Neil Kinnock announced his decision April 13 to quit the leadership, effective in late June, his party plunged into an acrimonious debate about the best way forward.

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On one side is a faction demanding fundamental reconsideration of the party's socialist heritage, including a tactical pact with the centrist Liberal Democrat Party, which also did poorly in the April 9 election.

Pushing in the other direction, boosted by trade union power, are Labour traditionalists, urging the party to stick to socialist principles.

A senior member of the Labour hierarchy called it a "watershed struggle" between "those who know the party must change" and others "with their minds embedded in the past." But the pursuit of policies capable of making Labour electable seems likely to unleash turmoil in the party. The party is evenly split on how to replace Mr. Kinnock.

Bill Jordan, president of the engineering and electricians' union, urged an early leadership contest and pushed the candidacy of John Smith, a Scottish lawyer who is party finance spokesman. Mr. Smith, however, was architect of Labour's high-tax strategy that analysts say may have cost it the election.

A group of Labour members of Parliament argued that this made Smith an unsuitable leadership candidate and began a campaign to delay until fall the contest to replace Kinnock. They said this would give more time to consider Labour's electoral defeat and begin framing alternative policies.

Members of this group favor Brian Gould, Labour's New Zealand-born environment spokesman and a specialist on economics and trade. On April 13 Mr. Gould said he would run against Smith.

"The party is not in a mood for some sort of automatic succession," Mr. Gould said. "We shall want to consider where we are, what went wrong in the election campaign, and where we should be going in the future."

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In the leadership contest the trade unions will have 40 percent of the votes. Members of the Labour Party's reformist wing are hoping new laws requiring unions to consult the rank and file before voting on their behalf will ensure a ballot reflecting the membership's opinion. Jordan said, however, that there would not be enough time to organize a ballot of his union's members.

Senior Labour figures are having to face the fact that in the midst of a deep recession, and running against a party that has been in office for 13 years, it could notch only 35 percent of the popular vote. They also know the economy is likely to improve in the next few years.

Also in 1995, electoral boundaries in Britain will be redrawn to take account of population drift from inner city to suburban and rural areas. Peter Kellner, an election analyst at Oxford University, says the boundary changes are likely to favor the Conservatives by at least 10 parliamentary seats, making it even harder for Labour to climb back to power under a new leader.

The root of Labour's problem in articulating policies likely to attract wider public support lies in profound changes in British social patterns and political attitudes, many analyst say. The party has been slow to adapt to these changes, they say.

"Britain has become a conservative country," says Hugo Young, author of "One of Us," a best-selling biography of Margaret Thatcher. "There is reason to believe that it is inextinguishably conservative."

Mr. Young contrasts Mrs. Thatcher's encouragement of private ownership, now accepted by millions of Britons, with Labour's "core collectivist philosophy." That philosophy, he says, is "a challenge to middle-class life."

In his eight-and-a-half year term as Labour's leader, Kinnock did much to drag his party away from its cloth-cap origins. Under his guidance it shed its commitments to unilateral disarmament and to nationalized industry and developed a pro-Europe policy.

But in the general election campaign it threatened heavy taxes on high wage and salary earners and promised to give back to trade unions some privileges taken away in the Thatcher years. This appeared to alienate many voters who prefer Conservatives' low-tax approach and who continue to be suspicious of trade unions.

Whoever is chosen as Labour's next leader - Smith is the favorite at present - will come under pressure from party progressives to continue Kinnock's strategy of moving toward the political center, including more acceptance of market economics.

The new leader will also hear a lot from those who see the long-term answer to Labour's embarrassment as a readiness to cooperate with opposition parties.

Ben Plimlott, professor of politics at London's Birkbeck College, says it is "absurd" for Labour and the Liberal Democrats to maintain their divisions. "On this occasion that attitude has enabled the Conservatives to retain power when only 43 percent of the electorate voted for them."

The combined Labour and Liberal Democrat vote on April 9 was 52 percent.

"We must find a way of remaining the party of compassionate values," says Robin Cook, Labour's health spokesman, "while accepting that Labour's old corporatist assumptions are out of date."

A senior Labour Party member of Parliament who has yet to decide who will get her vote in the leadership contest says: "No matter who gets the job, many of us will demand a fundamental rethink of what Labour stands for in post-Thatcher Britain."

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