Geoff Hoon: We need to sort out this leadership issue once and for all

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The Independent Online

Despite the polls, the result of the forthcoming election is not yet decided. The Conservatives have not closed the deal with the electorate. People have real doubts about David Cameron. They have real concerns about what the Conservative Party stands for. But for the Labour Party to make its case to the electorate successfully it must be united and have confidence in its leadership.

The Parliamentary Labour Party remains deeply divided over the question of the leadership. No one is around the House of Commons for very long without hearing comments and complaints about our inability to get our message across. Every speech or interview is analysed for what it may or may not say about the leadership – instead of for what it actually says about our policy proposals.

As a result Labour MPs frequently express their frustration at the way in which the leadership question is affecting our political performance. Very many do so privately. A smaller number do so publicly.

Political experience tends to suggest that such divisions only grow as elections get closer. And that they can explode under the pressure of the campaign itself. This is why Patricia Hewitt and I quite separately concluded that this issue had to be resolved now rather than run the risk of it wrecking our election campaign. That is why we proposed holding a secret ballot of all Labour MPs to decide the way forward. This is hardly revolutionary. It could be done quickly and with minimum disruption to the work of MPs and the Government.

The great advantage of such a democratic vote is that, whatever the outcome, the whole of the party could then go forward, knowing that this matter had been sorted out once and for all.

Strong supporters of the Prime Minister should have no difficulty in backing this approach. They are arguing that it is unnecessary. But showing that he enjoys the confidence of Labour MPs can only strengthen his hand in the run-up to the general election.

Those who have argued against the present leadership, should they lose such a vote, would then be expected by the majority of Labour MPs to devote all of their efforts to winning the election. The implications of such a vote would be clear – everyone would be bound to support the result.

The continued speculation and uncertainty is allowing Labour's opponents to portray the party as dispirited and disunited. It is damaging its ability to set out our strong case to the electorate. It is giving our political opponents an easy target. Resolving these questions can only be good for our campaign running up to the general election.