British Leaders Assess Costs of Welfare State Labour Party Begins Sweeping Reassessment of Social Policy in a Bid to Regain Public Confidence, as Conservatives Push New `Enterprise Culture'
Alexander MacLeod, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 Thatcherism."
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. Party rifts
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 commission's inquiry.
"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. …