LONDON — If--or, more probably, when--Margaret Thatcher's Conservatives win a third term this Thursday, the opposition Labor Party will have reached a watershed. Over the short, intense weeks that characterize a British election campaign, many Labor supporters have sought comfort in the party's stirring revival under Neil Kinnock, its progress in the opinion polls and its new-found mastery of media and imagery.
To be sure, Labor has rebounded from the fiasco of the 1983 election, when it appeared on the verge of self-destructing. Under Kinnock, the party now looks relatively united. His call for a return to the politics of compassion scores points; so do his scalding rhetorical attacks on Prime Minister Thatcher for arrogance and insensitivity, and the wanton devastation of Britain's inner-cities--areas where her aides acknowledge she is most vulnerable.
Yet the Dickensian wasteland that Kinnock describes may also be a window into Labor's long-term problems. For Thatcherism has wrought profound demographic changes in Britain--changes that may have wrecked future prospects for a return to mass-based Social Democratic government. Eight years of Conservative rule have changed the face of the electorate, and with it the face of the Labor Party. Above all, it has given birth to a radical and unruly left wing, bred largely in London and ruined urban areas, that may prove to be Kinnock's greatest electoral liability.
The solidly Thatcherite south of England has been revolutionized, turned into a high-tech service platform infused with the ethic of self-reliance and individual advancement. Dull commuter hubs like Bracknell, Basingstoke and the old railway center of Swindon have been converted into sleek boom towns ringed by gleaming industrial parks. At the other end of the spectrum are the northern graveyards of traditional heavy industry, towns like Birkenhead, Middlesbrough and South Shields.
As blue collars are exchanged for white, Labor's traditional bastions of unionized, working-class support are dissolving. Among the Conservatives' most popular moves was allowing tenants in public housing to buy their own homes. One million have taken advantage of the scheme, and a majority of them will probably vote Tory on Thursday. At the same time, the trade unions, on which Labor has relied more heavily than any other Western European party, have declined sharply in both numbers (only 22% of British workers are now unionized) and credibility--their collapse symbolized in Thatcher's crushing victory over striking mine workers two years ago.
While one segment of the old working class has tasted the pleasures of upward mobility, another has slid rapidly, perhaps irrevocably, downhill. Britain now has a solid 3 million unemployed, the core of a disenfranchised underclass that inhabits the blighted inner cities.
The self-proclaimed champions of the inner cities are a new breed of local Labor activists, who moved into a vacuum created by an exodus of middle-of-the-road party members during the 1970s. It was Rupert Murdoch's ferocious tabloid daily, the Sun, that first dubbed them the "Loony Left." Some belonged to extreme leftist groupings on the fringe of the party, such as the Trotskyist Militant Tendency. Others emerged from the issue-oriented politics of the 1960s, thrusting the issues of radical feminism, gay and lesbian rights and militant anti-racism to center stage. A vicious circle soon developed: Each new government cutback of funding and services brought a new sense of marginality to the inner cities and an ever greater stridency to their politics. Thatcher's response was to bypass local government powers altogether, a campaign climaxed by abolition of the Greater London Council in 1985.
The British tabloids have run riot with the Labor-controlled city councils. In the popular papers' overheated imagination, children are being indoctrinated in hatred for the nuclear family while councils ban black garbage sacks because they are racist and manholes because the term is sexist. A study by London University's Goldsmith's College concluded that many "Loony Left" stories were "either deliberately distorted or simply invented." Yet the fabrications were spun around a grain of truth, and the damage was done.
The new style of Labor politics in the cities often appeared to neglect bread-and-butter economic issues affecting its constituents. It was a confrontational style that placed a premium on gestures and symbols: an African National Congress flag flying over the Town Hall; Nicaraguan sister-city projects, and invitations for Sinn Fein councilors from Northern Ireland to address local councils.