WORLD

Humiliation at the polls

Thatcher confronts an anti-Tory tide

JOHN BIERMAN April 2 1990
WORLD

Humiliation at the polls

Thatcher confronts an anti-Tory tide

JOHN BIERMAN April 2 1990

Humiliation at the polls

Thatcher confronts an anti-Tory tide

BRITAIN

For Britain’s opposition Labour Party, it was the most emphatic byelection victory since 1935. For Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it was a personal humiliation, raising doubts about her continued leadership of the Conservative party. The humbling of Thatcher occurred in the previously safe Conservative constituency of Mid-Staffordshire. In a key byelection there last Thursday, Labour’s Sylvia Heal, a 47-year-old social worker, transformed the 14,500-vote majority scored by the Tory candidate in the 1987 general election into a 9,500-vote margin of victory for herself. That represented a swing from Conservative to Labour of 21.3 per cent and, according to some analysts, it represented a major reversal in British politics. Clearly, the victorious candidate thought so. “The dark age of Thatcherism is drawing to a close,” said a jubilant Heal as the result was announced.

If repeated nationally in a general election, the lurch from right to left would send Labour Party Leader Neil Kinnock to 10 Downing Street with a 200-seat majority in the 650-seat House of Commons. And although the next general election is not due for two years—and an antigovernment protest vote is common in byelections— some analysts detected a significant new factor this time.

Said Ivor Crewe, professor of government at Essex University: “The middle classes of middle England are voting Labour for the first time since 1945. A taboo has been broken.”

Public opinion surveys show that three factors were

principally responsible for the massive antiTory swing: interest rates that doubled to 15 per cent over the past 18 months; a 7.7-percent annual inflation rate; and the unpopular poll tax. Officially called the community charge, the poll tax will replace traditional property taxes on April 1 and will be levied on almost all adults. It has been widely condemned as unfair. Indeed, a compilation of four leading opinion polls showed Labour’s popularity surging in the two weeks before the byelection, and a poll published on Sunday by The Observer newspaper placed Labour ahead by a record margin—57 per cent to 29 per cent for the Tories. Another poll showed that public dissat-

isfaction with Thatcher herself stood at 66 per cent.

There was similar disenchantment within the Tory party itself. When the Tories hold a leadership vote next autumn, there is certain to be a serious bid to overthrow Thatcher. Her most prominent rival is former defence minister Michael Heseltine. Many commentators predict that, under Heseltine, the Tories could win the next general election—but would almost certainly lose it under Thatcher. Said Robin Oakley, political editor of The Times of London: “It’s the TBW fac-

TBW factor. The voters are saying, ‘I’m not voting Tory again while That Bloody Woman is in charge.’ ”

JOHN BIERMAN

with

IAN MATHER

in

London