Britain at the Polls

Brass Tacks

Billy Graham has currently drawn much bigger crowds on his preaching tour of Great Britain than Labour and Conservative campaigners for the oncoming election. But tomorrow polling booths will replace soapboxes and even the pulpit as the center of attention. Tory defenders and Socialist contenders will wage their final battle on each Britisher's ballot. Yet the very fact of Graham's large turnouts suggests that few election issues have been not enough to divert interest from him. Although some Labourites, like Aneurin Bevan, have themselves campaigned as evangelists, the general prediction of both bookies and "univacs" is that Britain feels it's not time for a change.

The greatest single factor which the Conservatives have to thank for their optimism is their own Government's perspicuity in having called a snap election this spring. Sir Anthony Eden need not by law have risked his newly-acquired office until October, 1956. But the talking points of existing prosperity and probable talks with Russia "at the summit" were too good to pass by. Besides, the Labour party was just at that time embarrassingly split by internal feuds. Its moderate wing, represented by former Prime Minister Clement Attlee, had been driven rightwards by attacks from the Bevanites on the left. A party which failed to maintain the support of its own members, the Conservatives reasoned, could hardly hope for the support of the nation.

But the Labour party has by no means conceded the victory. With its ranks hastily united, it has some factors definitely in its favor. Before the last election, in October, 1951, the Conservatives confidently expected to win a majority of 105 seats in Parliament. They won by a majority of 16. Moreover, no previous Government in British political history has ever lasted for more than four years on as slim a lead as the Conservatives now have and then triumphed at the polls. Labourites are banking on precedent. They are also hoping that U.S. Republican victory in 1952 will prompt Britishers to redress the political balance on their side of the Atlantic in favor of socialism. Indeed, some Socialists have complained to their constituents that the one reason why President Eisenhower finally agreed, when he did, to Churchill's long-standing proposal for Big Four talks was because he wanted the Conservatives to win. In hopes of depriving the Eden Government of the credit due to Churchill for this triumph, Labourites have now even adopted the slogan: "Churchill--the man whom the Tories threw out!"

Short of a last minute crisis, however, Labour is still the underdog. Britishers seem fairly satisfied with the situation at home and hopeful about affairs abroad. With this "complacency" against them, Labourites have been doing their best to create crisis, that is, in the imagination of that small but decisive group of uncommitted voters who do not vote Tory or Socialist come what may. Eventually, their main weapon against the Conservatives has been the high cost of living costs. They have pointed out that, during their own regime at 1941 to 1951, their policy of a "fair share" gave the British people the lowest living costs in Western Europe. Because of the abandonment by the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, R. A. Butler, of rationing and price controls, theses costs now are admittedly among the highest.

Foul Weather Friends

As a remedy for this "favoring of the rich," Labour has again promised that it will seek to distribute obligations more equally. It will introduce a bill to restrict the amount of dividends which companies may pay; it will re-nationalize steel and road transport, and probably the chemical industry as well. Yet these measures everyone would have expected, from the Party's previous record. The Socialists have also had to make some new promises. Among them is a rather radical proposal on housing. The Conservative's policy of allowing private individuals to construct their own homes, instead of waiting their turn for publicly built ones, has succeeded moderately well. In order to outdo the Tories, Labourites have promised to urge that all houses rented for profit by individuals be purchased by local municipal authorities. The result would be equalized rents. They have also urged equality of educational opportunity by proposing that everyone who passes the entrance examination to a university receive an automatic state scholarship.

But the Labour party is Britain's refuge during stormy weather, and the country is presently basking in sunshine. There is full employment and a minimum number of social injustices demanding correction. The Socialists cannot say of the Conservatives that they need to be dragged "kicking and screaming into the twentieth century," for the Tories have accepted most of their own post-war legislation. Indeed, Labour has been hard pressed for election issues because all the real issues existed within its own party.

The same consensus has existed in the foreign policies of the two parties. The chief differences among them have not been in their respective attitude toward the United States. Unlike the Labourites, the Conservatives have firmly committed themselves to supporting American policies. Thus, although Eden has recognized Communist China's claim to admission into the United Nations, he has hesitated to demand it for fear of alienating the U.S. Labour stands for pressing this claim. Both parties urged the withdrawal of Chiang Kai-shek's forces from Quemoy and Matsu back to Formosa; while the Conservatives thought in terms of their "two Chinas" policy, the Socialists suggested that the Formosans hold a plebiscite after several years to decide if they would form an independent country or belong to Red China.

Hydrogen Fears

Britain's most immediate concerns, however, have been whether she should rearm Western Germany and manufacture the hydrogen bomb. Fear of war among her people forced Labour to support the Government's decision to do both, thereby cancelling these questions as election issues. Still, the Socialists did pledge to urge an agreement halting H-bomb test explosions. Yet now that talks "at the summit" seem probable, even the bomb issues has withered. Moreover, although Attlee has been pressing for such talks "in season and out" for a number of years, the fact remains that it is the Eden Government which has finally achieved them.

The weight of issues, therefore, would seem to tip the election balance to the Conservatives. Britain called in the Socialists after the War because its economy required strict domestic reforms, but now they are unwanted. Both parties have had to promise to tread softly in foreign matters, because the present state of word affairs does not sanction radical changes. Bevan has recognized how this lack of glaring issues has weakened Labour's appeal; he last week came out for a neutralized and disarmed Germany. But the Socialists have found themselves unable to follow him. Nonetheless, an election is not won until it is over. Billy Graham or not, the Britisher has always had a reputation for uncanniness. And even Gallup polls can be wrong.