When Margaret Thatcher scored an Olympic-sized victory in Britain’s general election on June 9, the starting gun promptly sounded for a new political leadership race among the battered remnants of the opposition parties. For the secondrunning Labour Party, survival as a realistic alternative to the Conservatives now is at stake. Labour’s only real chance of winning power again clearly depends on its ability—and willingness—to reshape its image in a way that will appeal to an increasingly middle-class society. At the same time, there is uncertainty that the partnership between Labour’s young rival, the Alliance of Social Democrats and Liberals, will endure. Under the awkward dual leadership of David Steel and Roy Jenkins, the Alliance had bitten deeply into both Labour and Tory support to gain a quarter of the popular vote but won a mere 23 seats in the 650-seat Commons, compared with the Conservatives’
397 and Labour’s 209.
Only days after the election, Labour’s Michael Foot and the Social Democratic Party’s Jenkins announced that they will resign from their roles. For his part, Jenkins resigned with dignity. Amid protests from his colleagues, he urged that his mantle fall on the more dashing and forceful David Owen, the former foreign minister in the last Labour government from 1977 to 1979. But Foot’s resignation was less graceful: Shadow Chancellor Peter Shore, one of his poten-
tial successors, prematurely announced the decision. In an attempt to make himself front-runner for Labour’s Oct. 2 leadership convention, Shore disowned much of his party’s unpopular platform, especially a contentious clause calling for unilateral nuclear disarmament. But Shore’s age, 59, may work against him. Union leader David Basnett, for one, a powerful party kingmaker, has talked of the need to “skip a generation” downward from the 69-year-old Foot to find a leader able to endure the wilderness years.
Foremost in that new generation of Labour leaders is Neil Kinnock, 41, a left winger and a fiery Welsh orator whose style has a strong appeal to party traditionalists. Kinnock is the darling of the unions, which will account for 40 per cent of the votes at the convention. Should Kinnock be unsuccessful in his
campaign, the party’s environment spokesman, Roy Hattersley, would almost certainly claim victory. At 50, he is a tough, intellectual Yorkshireman with pro-Europe views and a pragmatic approach to the nuclear issue. A prolific author and columnist, Hattersley is also Labour’s best speaker and television performer. And late last week Hattersley and Kinnock each agreed to serve as deputy to the other if they fail to win—the first indication that Labour’s wounded unity may yet be healed.
In the case of the SDP, a party meeting confirmed Owen as leader. In the next election the “two Davids”—Owen and Steel—could present a formidably charismatic appeal of youth and freshness, if they can work together. Both are determined, ambitious men, and if the parties were to merge—an issue that will be raised at a major Alliance conference this week—the issue would become critical. One SDP founder, Shirley Williams, who lost her seat in the last election, said that Owen was “the only man with the calibre, dash and flair to be the equal of Mrs. Thatcher.”
For his part, Steel hinted that he might not lead the Liberals into the next election. However, the move was widely interpreted as a pre-emptive strike against rebellious Liberals who might try to sever the SDP link. Despite the SDP’s poor showing in the number of seats it won, the party received a proportionately larger share of votes than the Liberals. If the Alliance is to replace Labour as the main opposition party, Steel knows it needs all the appeal to Labour voters that it can get, and the SDP can best deliver it.
In the weeks ahead Labour members will seriously debate whether or not the party can survive at all as it moves into the 1990s. The class struggles out of which the party grew at the turn of the century are now disappearing. The most telling indication of Labour’s decline is the abysmal size of its popular vote—
_ 27.6 per cent compared with 43.9
per cent in 1959, the year of Harold Macmillan’s Tory landslide. Indeed, the party has lost its old, natural working-class constituency except in Wales, Scotland and parts of the industrial north.
Political commentators suggest that Labour’s traditional promises to provide cradle-tograve security have lost the attraction they once had for postwar voters. The Thatcher message of national pride and individual responsibility may strike Roy Hattersley as a “doctrine of mean-minded self-interest.” But that stance clearly proved to be a winner at the polling booths.
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