Leading article: Let the contest begin

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If the poisonous feud that has gripped the Labour Party over the past week seems beyond the power of any single politician to stem by appeals to reason or self-interest against the Tories, one positive gain from the various salvoes fired across the sky has been Gordon Brown's commitment this weekend to a leadership contest.

It has been depressing that some of the Chancellor's allies have floated the idea that the Labour Party, post-Blair, won't need any more damaging conflicts, and that after the recent ructions everyone will need to lick their wounds and "unite" behind a new leader.

This is nonsense. The time for unity will be after a genuine contest has taken place and after MPs, MEPs, party members and trade unionists have all had a say through the electoral college - and not before. The last thing Keir Hardie's political descendants need is what some call a coronation.

A genuine contest will dispel the suspicions surrounding Mr Brown, and which Charles Clarke strengthened in his recent attack, that the Chancellor is not a figure who much cares for broad daylight, that he prefers to operate behind the backstairs and the firmly closed door as the iron-willed leader of a group of acolytes - a master puppeteer, perhaps, but neither willing nor able to engage in hearty argument.

An open contest will soon dispose of those claims and, if the Brownite camp is to be believed, would reveal a very different person from the control freak of Blairite legend.

A contest is also desirable for the sake of the party as well as for Mr Brown's reputation. For too long there has been precious little intellectual discussion inside Labour ranks. This was justified in the first years of Blair rule as a necessary tonic to the bad old years of bedlam and anarchy, when Labour's notoriously brawling conferences - so stimulating, no doubt, for those who attended - sent voters running in droves towards the Tory tent. But plays on fears that Labour might again become "unelectable" have been used more recently, too, in order to shore up a now tedious and brittle New Labour orthodoxy - shorthand for never criticising Mr Blair.

It has to be good for the health of the left in this country if a leadership contest lasting several weeks allows for a little stretching of those atrophied intellectual muscles.

Of course, some will sneer that there are no longer any real policy differences to discuss, because, as so many have rushed to claim, the Blair-Brown row is all about "personality" not politics. Cue for some voices to whisper that Mr Brown is just as "Atlanticist" as Mr Blair, more of a Eurosceptic, and that there is little substance to the much-touted claim that he is a more determined fighter for social justice than the Prime Minister.

All the more reason, then, for encouraging as many candidates to declare their hand. Let a hundred flowers bloom as Alan Johnson, John Reid, Peter Hain and others all spell out just how different they could make our lives. Having championed competition in so many areas of public life, it will be interesting to see a competition of ideas having the same salutary effect on the Labour Party.