Despite the Smell of Death, Tories Will Likely Hang On

<i> William Pfaff is a Los Angeles Times syndicated columnist based in Paris. </i>

Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government is in serious difficulty; the press and political class, vocationally morbid, are convinced that its end draws near. What is interesting, though, is that there seems to be nothing except another Conservative government to take its place. The Labor Party does very well in polls but remains gravely divided internally. There is every reason to doubt that it is in a condition to win a general election.

The centrist Alliance of Social Democrats and Liberals is handicapped by an electoral system in which the winner takes all and good seconds count for zero. It also is divided, notably on whether Great Britain should maintain its independent nuclear deterrent.

There are two reasons for the Conservative government’s decline--for “the smell of death” that has gathered around it, to quote Peter Jenkins of the Observer.

The first is that its programs, conscientiously applied, have failed to put the British economy convincingly on the way back to health. The recovery that began in 1981 is faltering. Unit labor costs are much above those in competitor countries, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development analyses, while real wages have continued to rise more rapidly than in other major industrial nations. The public, including the Conservative Party’s supporters, has become increasingly troubled by a deterioration in schools and health services.

The second cause of Thatcher’s difficulty is that she is losing the party’s confidence. Her manner of governing the country has been to work closely with a kitchen cabinet of unofficial advisers and to deal arrogantly with the real cabinet.


In the British system that can work while the government is a success. When the government is not, it doesn’t. The cabinet is made up of people of independent authority who have their own skins to save, and the Tory Party itself has never displayed much compunction about ridding itself of potential election losers.

Labor’s new leader, Neil Kinnock, has made his party a great deal more attractive to middle-class voters than it has been in recent years. It nonetheless remains the prisoner of the British trade-union movement, whose block votes dominate its conventions and platform. It remains under a powerful and politically baleful influence from the anti-democratic far left.

Labor’s problems are suggested by figures recently published on individual memberships. Of 313,000 individual members, nearly half of them--140,000--are described as “unwaged.” That is, they don’t have a job.

It is quite possible that some of these “unwaged” declare themselves as such in order to get a cut-rate subscription to the party. It is also true that active members of a party are not necessarily representative of those who vote for it. It nonetheless is hard not to agree with the writer in the London Daily Telegraph who said recently that “the Labor Party’s membership must now be stupendously untypical of the nation as a whole, further estranged than ever not only from the professional and business classes but also from skilled and supervisory workers.”

This is reflected in the party leadership’s difficulty in purging the revolutionary Trotskyites who have become a significant force both in the trade-union movement and in many local Labor Party organizations.

In the United States the wild men (and women--no sexism here) tend to be on the right these days--survivalists, gun nuts, conspiracy theorists--but these have only recently taken up “entryism” and tried to take over local elements of the major party organizations, as the Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. people have done in Illinois and California.

In Britain today the wild ones are mostly on the left, and the Labor Party, its programs and governing committees are what they have struggled with considerable success to influence. They devote time and energy to the job, and as a result have much more effect on Labor’s affairs than their numbers would warrant. This continues to put off the moderate voters necessary to put Labor once again into national power.

Labor also suffers from the defection of a part of its old constituency and moderate leadership to the Social Democratic Party, formed five years ago, which subsequently formed an alliance with the venerable Liberal Party.

There is an invalid government in London, without an apparent successor. Politics abhorring a vacuum, that won’t last. The odds are that the Conservatives will succeed themselves, but that they also will, in all decent haste, or possibly indecent, push Thatcher aside. That is hypothesis. A certainty is that she won’t go quietly.