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25 June 2007

Democracy is good for you

The deputy leadership race began in ridicule and ended in dignity

By Martin Bright

Watching the Labour deputy leadership candidates sitting in line at Labour’s Manchester conference I was strangely moved. It would be difficult to gather together six senior Conservatives of such quality who good conduct a seven week political campaign without bitterness or rancour.

In the end it was extremely close. No one candidate stood out as the clear frontrunner and the fact that the votes of all the candidates were needed to decide the winner makes the result a genuine expression of the will of the party and its affiliates. It is healthy that Harriet Harman won it, in the end, on the votes of the party members. She is not everyone’s idea of a deputy leader but she is not a divisive choice.

I bumped into Michael Gove, the Conservative shadow housing minister, last week, who said it would be bad for the Labour Party if Hazel Blears came sixth. She is the Cameroons’ favourite Labour Cabinet minister because she talks the same talk about sticking mercilessly to the centre ground. Gove’s argument is that all the other candidates were, in their way, waverers. But within the Labour Party it is now clear that Gordon will not need his deputy to hold him to the centre ground. He has shown himself perfectly capable of that himself. His warning to the deputy leadership candidates that they must remain loyal to Labour Party policy should be taken very seriously indeed.

But for those Labour supporters to the left of Gordon Brown it is not a bad result. The concern with Alan Johnson was that if he didn’t win he could become the focus of the hopes of the dissident Blairite rump within the party. But he has remained entirely loyal during the campaign and he should be rewarded with one of the top jobs in Cabinet (Home Secretary for instance). In some ways, the Labour Party’s interests will be better served by Johnson in a prominent cabinet role rather than as deputy leader. The same is true of Hilary Benn and Peter Hain.

Jon Cruddas, the candidate of the left (and the New Statesman) has transformed the debate and the sneers with which his candidacy were greeted have now subsided. Many of the issues he raised (housing, the extreme right, the loss of the traditional Labour vote) were taken up by other candidates trying to establish their left-wing credentials.

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Harriet Harman, despite her longevity, remains something of a mystery. Her campaign was cautious and she rarely stuck her neck out. Her stance on Iraq is peculiar, and people should not forget how close she was, as Lord Goldsmith’s deputy, to the process of drawing up the legal advice that took us to war. She says now that if she knew then what she knows now she would not have voted for the war. But she knew a whole lot more than the rest of us. If she couldn’t see that the legal advice was flaky then there are serious questions to ask about her judgement.

As she was elected deputy leader partly on the anti-Iraq vote within the party she should be asked to explain her role as the soonest opportunity.