Comment: Labour must choose the man the Tories fear

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HOW BADLY does Labour want to win the next election? That may seem an inappropriate question in a time of mourning, but Labour politicians need to be thinking about it, even while they are (properly) not publicly discussing it.

When John Major or his successor eventually calls a general election, Labour will have been out of office for nearly two decades. An entire generation of its MPs have had to content themselves with playing fantasy politics. Shadow Cabinet meetings, Westminster debates, television interviews are all, no doubt, perfectly interesting, even enjoyable, activities. But to engage in politics for year after year without ever actually being able to do anything more than be a conscientious constituency MP is, for people with talent and energy, a sort of living death. For John Smith, if politics was not about winning power, it was mere self-indulgence, a cruel betrayal of the millions of people who believe that only a Labour government cares about improving their lives.

Surely, then, we can be confident that Labour wants to win the next election very much indeed. The question is, how far is it prepared to go? What sacrifices of personal ambition, or political principle, are individuals prepared to make to ensure Labour does not go down to a fifth defeat?

First, after the proper interval for a funeral, and the politically necessary interval of campaigning for the European elections, the party must telescope its inordinately lengthy system of electing a leader. It would be intolerable to take all summer choosing a new leader, at a time when the Government is looking shakier and less credible by the day: delay would be irresponsibile. It is hard to think of anything more damaging to Labour's cause than a protracted contest, with all its potential for generating disunity, in which the candidates trudge wearily from one union conference to another competing to outdo one another in flattery and promises.

Respect for constitutional process is a deeply engrained Labour trait. But a party which turns it into a fetish without regard to wider consequences is not fully serious. In an ideal world, Labour's national executive would suspend its nightmarish electoral college and set in motion an emergency election procedure in which only MPs vote. In the real world, the best that can be hoped for is that the party will convene a special conference, probably towards the end of July.

Vital though dispatch is, it is even more important that the Labour Party elects the leader who is most likely to defeat the Tories. This is not said out of partisanship. Anyone concerned for the health of our democracy must want to see the main party of opposition with the most politically potent leader possible. Four and a half years ago we strongly supported Michael Heseltine's candidature for the Conservative leadership for that same reason: we believed Mr Heseltine would be a strong prime minister who would maximise his party's chances of winning.

It is in the same spirit that we will be making the case over the coming weeks for the Labour Party to elect Tony Blair as its next leader. Mr Blair is not only the politician the Tories most fear; he is the only leadership candidate capable of making Labour electable in the South. If the party's members really want Labour to form the next government, they should not need much persuading.