AFTER 13 years in continuous opposition, Britain's Labour Party
has decided to take a hard look in the mirror and ask a series of
searching questions about its own political doctrines.
A newly appointed commission on social justice will spend the
next 18 months examining the role of the welfare state and will
propose changes in Labour doctrine aimed at putting the party in
tune with the needs of people in the 21st century.
To counter the Labour moves, Conservative members of Parliament
are planning their own campaign to promote what they call the
"enterprise culture" as an alternative to the welfare state.
John Major's government, too, is expected to take a hard look at
welfare and the burden it places on an economy suffering from low
growth and high unemployment.
Naming the 16-member inquiry team, Labour Party leader John
Smith said the commission would be independent. Its task was to
mount "the most sweeping study of Britain's social condition" in
half a century.
Mr. Smith promised that it would address "deepening poverty,
growing homelessness, and ever-increasing unemployment." A senior
member of Labour's shadow cabinet added that the political aim of
the commission would be to "help the party find a way back to power
by proving that we have social solutions better than those of
Smith's move prompted activity by Conservative members of
Parliament who believe Thatcherite principles hold the answer to
Britain's social problems.
Michael Portillo, a younger member of Prime Minister Major's
Cabinet, has begun to emerge as leader of a cluster of
parliamentarians who call themselves the No Turning Back Group. The
group has announced plans to publish a series of pamphlets which
will argue the case for the free enterprise economy and the
progressive dismantling of key elements in the welfare state,
including the national health service.
The coming battle is unlikely to be a simple tussle between
Conservatives and Labour. Even as Smith announced he was setting up
the commission on social justice, sharp differences of approach
emerged within the Labour movement.
Smith, a cautious politician of Labour's moderate wing, said he
personally opposes moving away from universal social security
benefits - a central feature of Britain's welfare state.
This drew a riposte from Frank Field, Labour Party chairman of
the House of Commons social security committee. Mr. Field attacked
his own leader for apparently trying to set limits to the
"Everything must be up for consideration," Field said. "There
are no sacred cows. It should not be an exercise in merely
shuffling our prejudices."
Smith's decision to order an inquiry into the welfare state
reflects his party's difficulty in breaking out of what a senior
Labour official calls "a deep-seated political dilemma. …