Labor opens British conference with blast at Thatcher

October 02, 1990|By Gilbert A.Lewthwaite | Gilbert A.Lewthwaite,Sun Staff Correspondent

BLACKPOOL -- Britain's Labor Party, poll-positioned for electoral victory on current performance, celebrated yesterday its political ascendancy with a series of swinging attacks on the past 11 years of Thatcherism.

Lambasting the government's economic management, industrial policy and education reforms, Labor opened its annual conference here with a claim to be a viable alternative government.

It hit Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher particularly hard where it hurts most these days -- on the economy. Mrs. Thatcher, who had been widely credited with performing an "economic miracle," now is confronted by what many analysts consider to be a recession.

"Today in 1990 Britain is regrettably [at the] bottom of the . . . table of the major industrialized countries -- with the slowest growth, the worst investment performance and with rising unemployment, and a record multibillion-pound deficit in overseas trade," said John Smith, Labor's economic spokesman.

Among the indexes he cited as being worse now than when Mrs. Thatcher first came into office in 1979 were inflation, interest rates, typical household taxes and homelessness.

The government's economic difficulties are increasing Labor's confidence as voters indicate that, in their present mood, they would reject a fourth term for Mrs. Thatcher, who must call an election before June 1992.

But Labor's lead has shrunk from double to single digits in most polls since the Persian Gulf crisis started. The explanation appears to be that Mrs. Thatcher's handling of the crisis has strengthened her reputation for strong leadership, an element of popular esteem that so far has eluded Labor's leader, Neil Kinnock.

This week's conference, crucial to Labor's efforts to prove that it is fit for office, will therefore concentrate on bolstering Mr. Kinnock's image as the man who has turned the party

away from outdated ideology and dogma and toward a new, modern set of policies.

There still will be residual rumblings of left-wing dissent on defense, nationalization and union power, but the emphasis will be on restructuring and restraint.

Mr. Kinnock will make the keynote speech today, but already it is clear that Labor will make education and training the "great idea" of its "new approach."

With the economy in trouble, Mrs. Thatcher is not expected to call the next election until the government's attempt to squeeze inflation out of the system by cutting demand and activity has produced some favorable results, probably in 1992.

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