The party that loses


Fresh from his election, Britain's Prime Minister John Major reshuffled his cabinet. This is no longer a revised government of his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, but a new one, bearing the stamp of its leader. Mr. Major has hit the ground running.

That's what comes from a system that gives a working majority of 52 percent of the seats in the House of Commons to the party that won only 42 percent of the vote. The opposition Labor Party won 34.4 percent of the vote for 42 percent of the seats. The Liberal Democrats, with 18 percent of the vote, retain only 3 percent of the seats. The British system distorts a result that would turn effective government into chaos elsewhere.

So while the Tories get on with their natural (or so it seems) business of ruling, Labor goes back to introspection, doubt and a new leadership struggle. In 1983, when it was truly left-wing, Labor got 27.6 percent; in 1987, dragged to the moderate center by Neil Kinnock, 30.8 percent; and now 34.4 percent. But dramatic gains were not enough. Mr. Kinnock and the deputy leader, Roy Hattersley, have resigned the leadership.

With the new leadership to be picked by the Labor members of Parliament in July, Labor is back to seasonal in-fighting. The favorite is John Smith, a Scottish moderate and financial architect of the Kinnock centrism. The argument of the left is that Labor lost because it sold its birthright, socialism. Nonsense. Labor went the right way, just not far or convincingly enough. Mr. Kinnock's moderation contradicted his own positions of a few years ago, a greater sin in Britain than in Jerry Brown's California.

In a country where smokestack industry is dying and its unions shrinking, where more people own their homes and shares in industry (credit Mrs. Thatcher), a party that calls itself Labor and clings nostalgically to "socialism" is starting 10 meters back in the 100-meter --.

In Britain, as in Germany and here, the party of the right currently seems in power permanently if it can stay honest and moderate, while the party of the left is out so long voters doubt whether it is responsible enough to be trusted. Are the democracies heading toward a one-party regime of the moderate right, continually reaffirmed by vote, on the Japanese model? Probably not. Democratic governments contain the seeds of their own destruction, including a tendency to corruption, the power to bore and reluctance to solve problems.

But the challenge to the parties of opposition is to renew themselves in terms of the 1990s, to throw off the shackles of their past. As U.S. Democrats, British Laborites and German Social Democrats persist in demonstrating, it ain't easy.

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