Contenders enter ring for Labour leadership

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TONY BLAIR, shadow Home Secretary, will formally open his rapidly accelerating leadership campaign today with an ambitious call for a Labour Party strong enough to sweep the Tories away 'for a generation'.

The momentum behind Mr Blair continued to grow as the contest opened in earnest with public bids for the leadership from Margaret Beckett, John Prescott and a surprise outsider, Denzil Davies, a former Treasury minister.

Neil Kinnock was among those coming out publicly last night for Mr Blair, who will declare his candidacy in his Sedgefield constituency today.

In a speech stamping himself as the candidate for 'radical change and renewal', he will tell his local party members that he wants to lead a Labour Party 'driven by change, radical in intent, underpinned by conviction, confident of its beliefs and strong enough to win the battle of ideas and sweep the Conservatives away not just for a parliament but for a generation.'

Mr Blair will argue that the party needs to take more rather than fewer risks in projecting a clear message to the country and will emphasise the need to challenge right-wing ideas rather than retreat before them.

Both Mrs Beckett, the party's current leader, and Mr Prescott, the employment spokesman, intend to stand for the leadership and deputy leadership. There was strong speculation among Labour MPs last night that the more closely fought contest by far will be that for the deputy's post.

Although, apart from Mrs Beckett, Mr Davies is the only potential candidate with ministerial experience, there are doubts over whether he can attract the necessary 34 nominations from MPs.

As Robin Cook, trade and industry spokesman, followed Jack Cunningham, the shadow Foreign Secretary, and Gordon Brown the shadow Chancellor, in indicating he would not be standing, Mrs Beckett called on all the potential candidates to stand for both the leadership and deputy leadership. Mr Cook is expected to endorse Mr Blair as leader.

But the contest, which will end on 21 July, is also likely to bring about a sharp debate on key issues - including full employment. This goal was highlighted in a declaration by Mr Prescott yesterday when he said there would be a 'an election about Labour's values, approach, style and direction, as we move towards the 21st century'. He referred explicitly to a post-war target of limiting unemployment to 2.5 per cent.

Mrs Beckett said the support for her candidacy - from members of the public as well as from party members - had been 'particularly evident among women, whose votes Labour needs to win'. She said she had 'some 20 years' experience of putting together the broad-based suport needed to win and hold a marginal seat - the same process Labour needs to undertake throughout the country'.

Prescott jobs call, page 2

Leading article, page 10