There must be a debate

You would have thought a party that has managed to lose four million votes and more than half its members, that is trailing a rejuvenated opposition in the polls, and is struggling to explain away a disastrous foreign war, a funding crisis in the NHS and a scandal over "cash for honours" would jump at the chance to renew itself. Not a bit of it. The three cabinet ministers standing for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party have made a pact that they will not participate in public hustings with non-ministerial candidates.

This is disappointing. I know and like all three: Peter Hain, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Hilary Benn, the International Development Secretary and Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary. But they are doing Labour a disservice by refusing to debate with their non-cabinet rivals - Harriet Harman, the minister for Justice, and Jon Cruddas, MP for Dagenham. All three are saying that the party needs to be renewed but are refusing to debate how. What are their views on Iraq, the commercialisation of public services or relations with George Bush? How would they perform against other candidates? We simply won't find out until after the local elections in May, when it will be too late to influence the outcome. By then, a front-runner will have emerged in what will be little more than a "beauty contest".

If this happens, the party will have missed an opportunity to debate its future. It is 12 years since Labour last voted on its political direction. Then, members were shell-shocked by 15 years of Tory rule. Winning took precedence. Now, there is a chance to reflect, discuss and, crucially, to debate how Labour can win again but with a greater sense of political purpose.

It is not just the style of the contest that is at stake but the substance. Hain has said: "We do not need a fundamental debate on our aims and values." If the aim is to be tougher on crime than the causes of crime then such a debate is needed. If vulnerable sections of society are to be stigmatised for what they wear and our civil liberties eroded then, again, debate is essential. Finally, if David Cameron is to be allowed to pose a s the leader who cares most about poverty then a debate about Labour's aims is not a luxury but a necessity. The inference is, though, that we don't need a change of direction, only a change of leadership, and that the essential tenets of Blairism will remain.

Look at the French Socialists; they gained thousands of new members as their party debated who its presidential candidate should be. And remember the boost the Tories got from their elongated leadership campaign. But perhaps here lies one of the problems - that election campaign led to an outsider winning.

It's hard to renew a party in government, in the full glare of the media. But Labour isn't the creature of the 1980s that it was, riven by Trotskyite infiltrators. The activists who remain are a sensible lot. They should be trusted to participate in a debate about their party's future.

There is a final twist to this story. Because the party is in a financial mess, the NEC has demanded a 15 per cent levy on the campaign funds of all candidates. So less-well-off candidates are put off standing. But the financial woes are essentially political and won't be put right by this wheeze. People would join and pay for Labour if it could rebuild trust through a sense of political direction that was in keeping with its values of equality, liberty and solidarity. But that requires real debate.

A party dying on its knees must find a way to rediscover its voice, its confidence and its purpose. How is Labour to discuss renewal if cabinet candidates for its deputy leadership refuse to utter a word against the current direction of travel? If they won't, then it's up to others to fill the void. Either way - let the debate about Labour's future begin.

Neal Lawson is chair of Compass (www.compassonline.org.uk)