George Howarth: Why we need a leadership contest

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The Independent Online

I am a loyal supporter of Labour and our Government, so it may be surprising that I believe we now need to have a leadership contest. I nominated Gordon during last year's leadership process and genuinely wanted him to do well as Prime Minister.

We have to act now to rebuild the support we have lost over the last year because the country cannot afford to sleepwalk into a Tory government. This is particularly true for constituencies like mine, which was devastated the last time the Conservatives were in power.

We must take control and confront the problems that now face us. Our policies and the way we present them must improve.We have to explain what sort of country we want Britain to be in a way that resonates with the public. We need a story that tells how our progressive principles translate into policies that help ordinary people.

Politically, we have an open goal, because there is still a policy vacuum at the heart of the Conservative party. They have little to say about how they would solve our problems. Yet Labour's recent inability to explain how our policies fit together means we are unwittingly opening the door to the Tories.

Even when we get it right, good announcements, like those last week on help with fuel costs, are lost in a fog of frustration and disbelief. We need to paint a compelling vision of what life could be like in the 21st Century – Government on the side of ordinary people supporting our goals and aspirations. Individuals, families and society working together to be the best we can be.

Although the bleak voting intention figures have increasingly made grim reading over the past 12 months, there are some chinks of light. There is still a strong bedrock of people who identify more closely as Labour than for any other party. Our challenge is mobilising them to go out and vote.

Some colleagues, both in the Government and on the backbenches, are hoping that, given a little bit more time, the public will come round and the problem will go away. But we cannot simply cross our fingers, blame current unpopularity on circumstances beyond our control and ultimately do nothing. The "it's not our problem" strategy is the pathway to electoral obliteration.

Surely they are having the same conversations, receiving the same emails and letters from constituents, as I am. The anger and disappointment of voters with Labour is worse than I can remember in the last 30 years. This is confirmed in opinion polls with depressing regularity.

To respond to public concern on this scale is an absolute requirement for a party which is serious about realising its vision of the sort of country we want Britain to be.

Tony Woodley and others are saying that it is about policies, not leadership. I have great respect for Tony and he is half right. Changes in policy which benefit the people he and I represent are necessary. But having the strength to put such policies into action requires people to be open to the message. The question is: can Gordon now capture their attention? If not, we need a new leader.

A leadership contest will clear the air and give Labour a chance to recover enough ground to be in with a shout of winning the next election. The alternative of another Tory government is too dreadful a prospect to contemplate.

The Rt Hon George Howarth is Labour MP for Knowsley North and a former Home Office minister