Leading Article: A move that boosts Labour

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The Independent Online
SO THE contest for the leadership of the Labour Party will be between Tony Blair, representing its modernising wing, and - in all probability - John Prescott, a robust embodiment of its trade union roots, representing the party's left wing. Barring a political earthquake, Mr Blair will win, thus greatly enhancing Labour's already bright prospects of winning the next general election.

It was never very likely that Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, who are friends and political allies, would stand against each other in the battle to succeed the late John Smith. A pact was thought to exist between the two men to that effect. Mr Blair's substantial lead over other potential candidates in recent opinion polls must have killed any illusions Mr Brown cherished.

Any that lingered would have been dispelled by last weekend's news that even a majority of Scottish Labour MPs - who might have been expected to regard Mr Brown as one of their own - preferred Mr Blair.

For all that, the Shadow Chancellor's ruling out of his own candidacy at this relatively early stage does both him and his party credit. To the country at large, the move will be seen as a welcome sign that some politicians are capable of putting larger considerations before personal ambition. Mr Brown has not only acted like a wise man with a sound strategic sense. He has also shown considerable strength of mind.

Just how much store the public - and indeed fellow politicians - set by such human qualities was shown by the tributes paid to John Smith's character. That outpouring caused not a few people to reassess their attitudes to the Labour Party, which can only gain from Mr Brown's move.

At a more mundane level, the party's modernising wing will be spared a damaging campaign between its two leading members. Although the two men would doubtless have refrained from personal attacks, their supporters might have shown less restraint. All involved would have been tempted to exaggerate the slight ideological differences between them.

Mr Prescott's potential challengers from the left of the party, thought to be Robin Cook and the acting leader Margaret Beckett, should now follow Mr Brown's example. A clean fight between Mr Blair and Mr Prescott, or Bambi and Thumper as they are being dubbed in Westminster kiddie- speak, would provide a healthy debate between the party's two wings while avoiding an impression of multi-layered divisions. The result of the vote is due to be announced on 21 July.

For the next few months Labour will be under particularly close scrutiny. With no former cabinet ministers on its front bench, it cannot prove its potential as a governing party. So its overall demeanour in such matters as electing its future leader and responsibly debating its policies is crucial. Labour's preparation for the next general election started yesterday - and it started well.

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