Leading Article: Labour must wave its red flag

Click to follow
The Independent Online
The most democratic leadership election in Labour Party history is becoming something of a farce. Those backing Tony Blair, the inevitable winner, want a contest. But they favour ritualised combat that would leave him unwounded. Meanwhile, the left fears humiliation. It is wary of fielding its best candidates just to confer legitimacy upon Mr Blair prior to his coronation. There is even talk of shying away from a contest.

Ironically, an election procedure designed to encourage healthy debate could degenerate into one where the victor 'emerges'. Much as Tory party leaders once materialised from what Iain Macleod castigated as the 'magic circle', Labour's leader might seem to have been anointed not by the faithful but by a 'media circle' and the chattering classes.

Such an outcome would be a travesty of the party's traditions. No Labour leader in recent times has won the position without a vote. Despite the left-right split that has characterised such contests, campaigns have often helped bridge existing divisions. When Hugh Gaitskell won the party's bitterest leadership election, in 1955, his left-wing challenger, Nye Bevan, labelled him a 'desiccated calculating machine'. Yet Bevan fell into line afterwards, abandoned his support for unilateral nuclear disarmament and ushered in a relatively peaceful period for the party.

The fears of the Labour left are understandable this time around. There is less to fight for than in Bevan's day. Old issues such as nationalisation and unilateralism are off the agenda, and Europe is a taboo subject within the party. Left-wingers also remember that Bryan Gould was given such a drubbing by John Smith in 1992 that he felt his political career was destroyed. They fear John Prescott or Margaret Beckett could suffer similar damage.

They should be less nervous. There are issues of economics and taxation that still need debate, notably the neo-Keynesianism of the left versus the supply-side policies developed by Gordon Brown and supported by Mr Blair. These differences would inevitably be seized upon by the Conservatives. But there is likely to be plenty of time before the next general election for the party to rally behind one policy.

A defeat in the leadership contest need not mean humiliation. Both Mr Prescott and Mrs Beckett have earned enduring respect as loyal senior figures and will play important roles, regardless of the outcome. Furthermore, each is more popular with the party's grassroots than was Mr Gould. A much broadened electorate, whose views will no longer be mediated by block votes, should ensure that their support is fairly reflected in the final result.

The message from the party would be easier to interpret if either Mr Prescott or Mrs Beckett stood down, as Robin Cook seems likely to do. But one of them should bear the red flag courageously in this election, as their left-wing predecessors did in palmier times.