Traditionally, the British Labour Party’s annual conference rang with left-wing rhetoric and radical policies. But last week, when Labourites gathered in the stately seaside resort of Brighton for their last fullscale meeting before a general election expected in the spring, the atmosphere was markedly subdued. Dark-suited delegates dutifully adopted a series of moderate policies, and the once powerful left-wingers were barely evident. One leftist MP, Tony Banks, even claimed that party officials had advised him to stop addressing fellow members as “comrade.” Said a deadpan Banks: “The approved greeting is ‘fellow shareholders.’ ” But in fact, the changes in Britain’s official opposition are much more than cosmetic.
For several years, opposition leader Neil Kinnock has been fighting to strip Labour of the radical socialist policies that it adopted in the early 1980s. In the process, he has steered the party back into the mainstream of Europe-
an social democracy. Still, Kinnock, 49, faces an uphill struggle to defeat the ruling Conservatives in an election that has to be held by July 9. On the surface, Labour should be able to take power with relative ease: the Tories have held office for 12 years and are presiding over a deep recession. But in fact, the two parties are almost tied in the polls, and British bookmakers rank the Conservatives, who are holding their own conference this week, as 3-to-2 favorites to win again.
Labour’s difficulties result partly from the fact that Kinnock’s efforts were designed to defeat the Tories’ longtime leader, Margaret Thatcher. She had moved the Conservatives so far to the right that Labour strategists argued that they could occupy the centre of British politics. But last November, the Tories offset many of Labour’s gains when they forced Thatcher to resign and replaced her with John Major. With a quieter, more moderate leader, the Conservatives moved decisively to disown
Thatcherism, creating a more difficult target for Kinnock. “I feel a bit sorry for Neil,” Banks told a crowded meeting of Labour left-wingers in Brighton. “He spent years shifting all our policies to the centre on the basis that Thatcher would be there, and now she isn’t.”
Kinnock’s new Labour Party is in the mould of Canada’s New Democrats or Germany’s centrist Social Democratic Party. It has abandoned earlier promises to re-nationalize companies privatized under Thatcher, reversed its previous opposition to British membership in the European Community, accepted most of Thatcher’s legislation restricting trade unions and dropped a pledge for unilateral elimination of nuclear weapons. Instead, Labour now positions itself as the party of good economic management, faulting the Conservatives for plunging Britain into its second recession in a decade.
But Labour has also vowed to spend more on public services—especially the National Health Service—and to raise the additional money by increasing income tax rates to 50 per cent from 40 per cent for people earning more than about $60,000 a year. Those relatively cautious changes draw scorn from Labour’s increasingly isolated left-wingers. The best known of them, Anthony (Tony) Benn, claimed last week that under Kinnock the party has allowed the political debate to turn into what he called “an argument about who will manage Great Britain Ltd.”
Conservative leaders attack Kinnock, who
was originally a product of the party’s left, for supposedly abandoning his socialist principles. But his changes have been matched by the Tories’ own reversals over the past year. Under Major, they ended some of Thatcher’s most unpopular policies, including a local gov-
ernment charge known as the poll tax that provoked protest riots last year. And to many Britons, the new prime minister’s low-key style proved to be a refreshing change from Thatcher’s hard-edged, hectoring approach. He also cut an unexpectedly confident figure on
the world stage, deftly handling Britain’s complex relations with its European partners and lecturing China’s leaders over human rights. As a result, Major runs ahead of his own party in popularity, while Kinnock consistently trails his. After eight years as opposition leader, a British record, Kinnock faces the additional problem of appearing stale, a tired survivor of past battles rather than a symbol of the future.
Analysts predicted that the Tories, at their conference, will try to set the themes for the election campaign. In fact, an unofficial campaign has been under way for several weeks, complete with policy announcements and TV commercials. But after Major cooled the atmosphere last week by ruling out a vote in November, most analysts set May or June as the likeliest time for an election. Major’s apparent hope is that the British economy will perk up by next spring, letting the Tories ride a surge of economic optimism to a fourth term in office, a record unequalled in this century.
The Conservatives were likely to claim at their conference that the worst of the recession is over. And although the conference is the party’s first since Thatcher left office, there were no plans for a tribute to her or an official appearance by her. For the moment, at least, her party’s new leaders clearly regard Thatcher—despite her new hereditary title, the Countess of Finchley—as a liability rather than an asset.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.