Scotsman gains easy victory to lead Britain's Labor Party

July 19, 1992|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Britain's Labor Party has chosen John Smith, the steady Highland Scot from the village of Ardrishaig on the misty edge of Loch Fyne, to be its new leader.

Over 90 percent of the party's electors, assembled yesterday in London's Royal Horticultural Hall, voted for the stocky, owlish man with the perpetually quizzical look. Bryan Gould, his closest competitor, got 9 percent.

Mr. Smith succeeds Neal Kinnock, the fiery but burned-out Welshman who in April led the party to its fourth consecutive defeat at the hands of the Conservatives in 13 years.

Mr. Kinnock is credited with bringing Labor back from a state of utter unelectability. In the April election, the Labor Party managed to narrow the Conservatives' majority in the House of Commons from 140 to 65 seats.

Mr. Smith, despite the party's defeat, was the star of that election. Until yesterday he was the shadow chancellor of the exchequer, or finance minister. For the election he produced a shadow budget to show how Labor would finance its many proposed changes -- improvements in education, job training, national health and industrial development.

More importantly he defended his budget with an adroitness that impressed even his political foes.

During the campaign a few people were heard to inquire why Labor was not being led by this man. After the defeat, the inquiries grew into a chorus.

Laborites hope the 53-year-old Presbyterian lawyer will take the party out of the shade and put the party back in power.

There are some who think Mr. Smith is perhaps a little too old, since the next election might not be held for five years. Others are dubious because of his health; he had a heart attack in 1988. He regained his fitness through a vigorous regimen of hill climbing.

But the size of his majority indicated that his health and age did not count for much for most of the party's electors. He was endorsed by all the party's major segments: the unions, the Labor Party's members of Parliament and members of the European Parliament, as well as representatives from the Labor constituencies throughout Britain.

Mr. Smith is a lifelong socialist, with a firm belief in the moral rightness of socialism's distributionist imperative. But he is not much interested in the ideologies that underpin the movement. Pragmatic is the word most commonly used to describe him.

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