Britain's Labor Party Saves Itself


Question: What is the British Labor Party without labor? Answer: Ready for a comeback.

British trade unions created the Labor Party. It grew from a left-wing opposition to a ruling party. A quarter-century ago, analysts said it would be dominant into the future because Labor-voting families were having more children than Conservative-voting families.

Since that analysis, the Labor Party has lurched to oblivion. Conservatives have governed Britain for 19 of the last 23 years. The demographic analysis ignored the success of the Conservatives at winning adherents and the alienation of Labor voters by the knee-jerk leftism of its politicians. It also ignored the weakening of trade unions by the decline of traditional smokestack industry.

This is what John Smith, the Scottish lawyer who now leads the Labor Party, was wrestling with when he determined to end the (( block vote by which local unions dominate the selection of district parliamentary candidates. The alternative is one party member, one vote. Mr. Smith's victory came thanks to union influence in the recent annual conference, where block voting remains. The more enlightened union leaders see that with their membership down to 8.3 percent of the population and their movement weakened by Conservative measures, a political party perceived to be part of the trade union movement is unlikely to win.

In another reform, Labor members threw Tony Benn off their executive committee. The prophet of modernism in the 1960s, a caricature of anachronistic leftism in the 1980s, Mr. Benn symbolizes the side of Labor that can no longer win.

The Conservative Party, in power too long, courted defeat in the 1992 election. But by dumping the unpopular Margaret Thatcher in favor of the inoffensive John Major, it squeaked back in. He has been on the ropes ever since. He devoted the Conservative's recent annual conference to solidifying his power and insuring party loyalty.

Both parties are getting in shape for an election that need not be held until 1997. That is the British way. The recent fear that Conservatives will rule forever is as ill-founded as the 1960s fear that Labor would. If the opposition party in a democracy will keep itself ready to govern, it can usually count on the governing party to give it the chance.

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