If control freakery means strong leadership, then I plead guilty

Our opponents have been helped by a minority in our party who can't shake off the culture of opposition
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The Independent Culture
THERE WERE always two criticisms likely to be levelled at the new Labour Government: incompetence or arrogance.

Even the Tories have realised the incompetence charge won't stick. Hospital waiting lists and infant class sizes are falling. An extra pounds 40bn has been found to modernise schools and hospitals. Inflation is on target, borrowing cut, the New Deal has helped slash youth unemployment to the lowest level since 1976; all this - and more - in our first 18 months of power, in just one full Parliamentary session, which ended yesterday.

And they don't have much more luck with arrogance. Hardly surprising, when this Government is devolving power to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and restoring to London a capital-wide authority headed by an elected mayor.

So the line of attack has been subtly changed in recent weeks from arrogance to control freakery. Our opponents have had some help from a small minority in our party who either never signed up to the New Labour programme on which we fought and won the election or can't manage to shake off the culture of opposition.

Let me make something clear at the start. If the charge is wanting our party to be successful and our Government to continue concentrating all its energy on delivering our promises, then I plead guilty. And if that means wanting us to be a modern, disciplined party with a strong centre, I'd like that offence to be taken into account as well.

But if I'm found guilty, then so would the overwhelming majority of Labour party members. They, too, are determined that our party won't return to the factionalism, navel-gazing or feuding of the Seventies and Eighties, no matter how much a few people long for those heady days of electoral disaster.

Our members know that this ill discipline allowed us to be painted as extremist, out of touch and divided. It helped keep us out of power for 18 years. The real losers were not the politicians denied office but the millions of people who depend upon our party to protect them and to promote their interests, as this Government is now doing.

Nor do I apologise for giving strong leadership to the party. I like everyone to know where I stand. But let's examine the specific issues on the control-freak charge sheet.

First, there is the Lords and voting in the European elections. The real issue here is not, of course, the voting system but the right of Tory hereditary peers to frustrate the will of the elected Commons. But for hereditary peers, we would have won on each of the five occasions the Lords, with their three-to-one inbuilt majority, have defeated us.

On the closed-list system itself, this is not some Stalinist voting procedure I invented but one used already by two-thirds of EU citizens in these elections and piloted first by the Tory government in Northern Ireland. It is a new system here because, as promised in our manifesto, we want to introduce PR for Euro elections. It means you will no longer be voting for a single-constituency Euro MP but on a regional basis.

The real answer to the control-freak charge is, however, that our party would almost certainly be giving away seats under this system, just as we will be in the Welsh and Scottish elections next year. The PR system used in the Euro elections will mean fewer Labour MPs than under a first- past-the-post system and more seats for our political opponents. It is a funny way for me to exercise more control.

On the selection of candidates, I won't apologise for our party wanting the best possible candidates to represent us in the elections for the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly. It is a measure of how important we believe these bodies are.

The Scottish and Welsh parties decided to use a selection panel to vet potential candidates, a process used successfully to choose every single one of our by-election candidates for the last decade and for our 8,000 council candidates for years before that - including, incidentally, candidates for the GLC.

But it was the Scottish and Welsh parties that decided to use these systems and run them. Not me, not Millbank. In Scotland, it was Donald Dewar who proposed it. It was the Scottish executive that approved it. It was the Scottish party that chose the majority of members on the selection panel. It was the same in Wales.

Donald may have proposed it, he may have been in the Cabinet, but he was interviewed by the panel just like everyone else. It would never have occurred to him to jump the queue or claim he should have special treatment because he was an MP. Seats in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly are not hereditary peerages. No one has a right to walk into them.

There were many more applicants than places in Scotland and in Wales. Those that failed to be approved are obviously disappointed but that doesn't make the system unfair. The Scottish party, for instance, decided that it wanted to see fresh talent and not just pack the new Parliament with those who had already enjoyed a long political career. I agree with that, but it was their decision, not mine.

The result is we have a first-class field of candidates, representing all shades of opinion within the party, in Scotland and Wales. We used the same system to select candidates for the Euro elections.

It shouldn't have been a surprise, then, that the London Labour Party leadership, by an overwhelming majority, decided to use the same selection procedure for candidates for the London authority and mayor. After all, it is hard to argue that we should use a process less rigorous than the one we use for by-election candidates.

It is not, as claimed, a system designed to stop one candidate in particular. The London Labour Party wants to put forward the best possible candidates to represent us and has chosen a tried, tested and fair system to do so. I agree with them, but it was again their decision.

The myth that the media likes to peddle is that I am the leader of the Labour Party but the party itself is desperate to be different. It is an odd thesis given that the party elected me in the first place, that our membership has grown hugely since I became leader and that our party conference has backed the leadership in every major vote since I became leader.

Of course, the Tories and the media preferred it when the Labour Party was divided, disunited and incapable of putting over a coherent case to the people. I am sorry to disappoint them; but those days are gone, and they are not coming back.

It is precisely because this is a modernised Labour Party, one that is in touch with the people we serve, that we are confident about devolution and believe that the party in Scotland, Wales, London and elsewhere has taken the right decisions and will do the right thing.

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