Local British elections sharpen outlines of two Englands
Britain today still struggles in vain to find peace within itself. Beset by a recession and the violence in Northern Ireland, it refuses to give any political party or any set of solutions a clear mandate.
These points follow from a number of recent events including the biggest test of voter opinion since Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher swept to power in May 1979.
That test -- local government elections throughout England and Wales -- produced three major conclusions:
* Britain is now, more than ever, two nations instead of one, each based on its own region and class.
The north is largely poor, out of work, and votes Labour. The south is wealthy, working, and Conservative. The gap, more and more noticeable in recent years, grows faster as recession and industrial change continue.
* Mrs. Thatcher has lost ground, as expected after two unpopular years of recession. but she did better than expected in London, and some other areas. Observers are struck not by how unpopular she is but by the fact that she is not more unpopular.
* The stage is set for an intense battle between Conservative central government, which wants to hold down local taxes and encourage business; and Labour local government, which wants to spend money on buses, school meals, housing, the elderly, and creating jobs, and plans to raise local taxes to pay for them all.
Politically, Mrs. Thatcher has more than two years before she has to call another general election. Although her strict economic policies are unpopular, she is able to dominate Parliament for two reasons:
She still has a majority of more than 40 votes on most issues -- and the opposition Labour Party continues to weaken leader Michael Foot with its prolonged internal struggle between the moderate left and the radical extreme left symbolized by Tony Benn.
The local government results here point to yet another reason why Mrs. Thatcher is riding out the recession with less political trouble than many of her own advisers had predicted.
Her support is concentrated in the prosperous south and southeast of Britain. While the Conservative Party lost 15 counties to Labour, and also some traditional Tory areas such as Avon, Cheshire, and Cumbria, their losses were actually less than in 1973, the previous occasion when Conservatives had fought local elections after two years in national office.
Some analysts here doubted that the swing to Labour throughout Britain May 7 would be enough to produce a Labour majority in the House of Commons if repeated at the next general election.
Analyses that followed the May 7 voting concluded that Labour had done reasonably well but not as well as it needed to do.
Mrs. Thatcher had held Conservative strongholds in the south. Although she lost ground in the West Midlands, in Yorkshire, and further north, she is said to feel that the overall shift away from Conservatives could easily be reduced if the economy improves before the next election.
In London itself, where the Greater London Council (GLC) is the largest local government body in Europe, the far-left wing of the Labour Party took control from Labour moderates.
London now has its youngest Labour leader ever, Kenneth Livingstone, who denies he is a Marxist but supports extreme far-left posit ions and will now confront Conservatives in Westminster.