Leading article: A chance for Labour to renew itself in power

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The Independent Online

All of a sudden, the post of Deputy Prime Minister seems to be the most desirable job in British politics. A number of Labour ministers have, either directly or indirectly, signalled their interest in the position in recent weeks. Harriet Harman, Peter Hain, Alan Johnson, Jack Straw and Hazel Blears are circling the post of deputy leader of the Labour Party. As long as Labour remains in power, the successful candidate would also automatically inherit the office of deputy leader of the country.

Whatever one's opinion on the recent treatment of John Prescott, Tony Blair's decision to strip him of his ministerial responsibilities, and Mr Prescott's relinquishment of his grace-and-favour country home last week, shows that his political career is in its dying days. In this context, it is hardly surprising that Mr Prescott's peers in the Labour Party are already beginning to stake a claim to his job: hesitation is rarely rewarded in politics.

As far as the Labour Party is concerned, this explosion of political ambition should be welcomed. A contest for the deputy leadership could help reinvigorate a governing party that seems to have lost its way. Labour is staggering from one scandal to another and has suffered a significant collapse in credibility. It has unfortunate echoes of the final years of John Major's administration. A contest for deputy leader would be a chance for the party to show it has something more to offer. Alan Johnson, the new Education Secretary, is a case in point. He has an interesting personal history, having left school to become a postman at 15. He also has the advantage of not being directly tainted by the catastrophe in Iraq. In the event of a leadership election, we could expect to hear a lot more about Mr Johnson and rather less about the extra-curricular activities of John Prescott. Rank-and-file Labour Party members and MPs can surely see the benefits of that.

The politics of any contest would, naturally, be extremely sensitive. When the scandal surrounding Mr Prescott erupted it was assumed that neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown had an interest in his resignation, since it would disrupt the smooth handover of power between the two men. Next there were reports that Mr Blair feared a deputy leadership election more than Mr Brown because it would provoke calls for a full leadership election sooner rather than later. Now there seems to be panic in the Brown camp over suggestions that the Blairite loyalists could use an election to help bolster the profile of a potential rival to Mr Brown for the prime ministership.

Whatever the truth of any of these competing narratives, none provides a good reason why the Labour Party should avoid a contest. The recent Conservative and Liberal Democrat leadership elections have shown they can have a positive effect on a party's morale.

A deputy leadership election in the Labour Party would also provoke a proper debate on the future direction of government. One of the reasons this government has been so dysfunctional is that most of the important questions of politics are debated in private. What is more, almost every major issue, from pensions to nuclear power, is refracted through the bitter personal relationship between Mr Blair and Mr Brown. This is unhealthy for the Labour Party and for the country. A deputy leadership contest would mean that some of these important questions would, at last, be honestly debated.

An open and vigorous contest for the deputy leadership would indicate a confident party, serious about renewing itself in power. A party that shied away from such a contest would only betray a group of politicians paralysed by weakness and self-doubt.

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