Without Thatcher to run against, Labor has less chance of winning election

December 06, 1990|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- The end of 11 years of Margaret Thatcher's domination of British politics creates opportunities -- and drawbacks -- for the opposition Labor Party.

The most obvious drawback is that the opinion-poll lead that Labor garnered over the past year as Mrs. Thatcher grew increasingly unpopular has evaporated overnight with the succession of John Major to be prime minister.

The Conservatives now predict that the next leadership debacle will be in the Labor Party. A member of the new Major Cabinet said, "It isn't just Tories who think the next grumbling about leadership is going to be inside the Labor Party."

Labor's leader, Neil Kinnock, while credited with modernizing the party and its policies, is seen by many as an electoral liability. He has steadily improved his public image but is still short of inspiring confidence in a majority of voters. He already has lost one general election. If he loses the next, it could be his last.

Without the unpopular Mrs. Thatcher as his adversary, Mr. Kinnock's chances of victory have clearly lessened, observers say, although he and his lieutenants have been pressing -- and preparing -- for an early election.

Labor's real fear was that former Defense Secretary Michael Heseltine, a dynamic and flamboyant figure, would unseat Mrs. Thatcher. With his commitment to a more interventionist government, a more pro-European foreign policy and reform of the unpopular poll tax, Mr. Heseltine would have made a formidable opponent. The polls showed him to be the most broadly popular of the three candidates in the Conservative leadership fight.

The victory of Mr. Major, a comparatively gray personality, was greeted with some relief at Labor Party headquarters.

Mr. Major has brought one political perversity to the scene: He has committed the Conservatives to pursuit of a "classless society" by the end of the century. This comes while Labor, traditionally the party of the working class, is seeking to establish itself as better able to manage a free-market economy than the Conservatives.

Labor strategists see the political sea change as a chance to reverse their own role: from being naysayers to Thatcherism to becoming presenters of their own positive alternative.

While Mrs. Thatcher's personality was partly her undoing, her policies were also running out of steam.

The economy is in recession. Her anti-European posture was out of sync with a younger generation that has enjoyed European hospitality more than it has experienced European hostility. Her poll, or head, tax is almost universally deemed to be one of the most regressive pieces of tax reform in memory. Her tight-fisted policies on the public services -- including health, education and transportation -- diverged from the general willingness to pay through taxes for needed provisions.

Labor politicians believe that they can now seize the initiative rather than always having to respond.

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