LONDON — Last week Britain continued its search for a usable opposition. It couldn't quite find one. British voters were unwilling to switch from a government most of them thought was bad to an opposition most of them thought was worse. That lesson should not be lost on U.S. Democrats.
No matter how much incumbents mess things up, they can't be defeated unless the opposition is credible. The British Labor Party ran a slick, professional campaign with a new, young and attractive leader. That helped. But Labor still gave no evidence of having learned from the Thatcher Revolution. Voting Labor still meant voting to go back to the bad old days of high inflation, labor strife and a no-growth economy--what used to be called "the English sickness." However dissatisfied people are with Margaret Thatcher, they don't want to go back to that.
The election was good news for the Conservatives. Thatcher became the first party leader in more than 150 years to win three elections in a row. But there was also bad news for Tories. Their share of the vote went down, as did the size of their parliamentary majority. Conservatives carried only 43% of the popular vote, which is what they got when they lost the elections of 1950 and 1964. They won this year because of a simple rule: happiness in politics is a divided opposition. What kept the Conservatives in power was the fact that the opposition vote was split between the Labor Party (31%) and the Liberal-Social Democratic Alliance (23%).
The election was bad news for Labor. Just under one-third of the vote was the party's worst showing in 50 years--except for last time. This modest improvement over 1983 gave Labor something to celebrate; in fact, it was the only party that did better this time. The really good news for Labor, however, was that it won the campaign, even if it lost the election. An exit poll showed Labor leader Neil Kinnock edging out Thatcher for the "best campaign" prize.
For the alliance there was only bad news. The alliance went into the campaign with high hopes of displacing Labor as the country's principal opposition party. Far from becoming the voice of Britain's moderate majority, however, the alliance lost votes, lost seats--and its entire reason for existing.
The Conservatives ran a perfectly awful campaign. One problem was arrogance. Thatcher opened by claiming that she intended to "go on and on" as prime minister. She closed by attacking people who, she said, "drool and drivel" about caring for others. The government remained on the defensive throughout, finally settling on the slogan, "Britain is great again. Don't let Labor wreck it."
With 11% of the labor force out of work, unemployment was the voters' top concern. That helped Labor. According to the polls, the voters' second major concern was public education. That helped Labor too. The third-ranked issue was the National Health Service. Again, a Labor advantage. Thatcher made matters worse when she justified her use of private medical care by saying that she was willing to pay for treatment "on the day I choose, at the time I choose and by the doctor I choose." That is a luxury most Britons can't afford.
If the major issues were working to Labor's advantage, why did the Conservatives win? Self-interest had something to do with it. Those voters who are employed are undeniably better off. As one Conservative strategist explained, "Two-thirds of the voters are doing well. And two-thirds of those who are doing well are voting Tory. Two-thirds of two-thirds equals the Tory vote."
In their eight years in office, the Conservatives did the two things they were elected to do: curb inflation and end disastrous labor conflicts. As a bonus, Thatcher won the Falklands War and brought new respect to Britain as a world power. At the same time, Thatcher is widely criticized for narrowness of spirit. What is missing in the Tory record is compassion and any sense of social obligation. The voters do not want to undo the Thatcher Revolution, but they want government to pay more attention to social and economic justice. Sound familiar?
Labor ran a brilliant campaign that exploited Conservative weakness. Kinnock spoke of unity and reconciliation, of "making common cause in this divided nation." He quoted the words of Martin Luther King, "They told us we wouldn't get here . . . but all the world knows that we are here and we ain't gonna let nobody turn us around." In a dramatic and moving television broadcast, Kinnock asserted--to the swelling strains of Beethoven's Ninth--that the strong in life "must help people who are not strong, the old, the disabled, the poor and those in need . . . . The Divided Kingdom must once again become the United Kingdom."