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18 May 2010updated 27 Sep 2015 2:19am

Labour must not indulge itself in opposition

NEC decision in favour of a long campaign poses threats to the party’s standing in the country.

By James Macintyre

At occasional moments during Labour’s slow-motion removal from power in the past fortnight, there were signs that the party that did so much from the mid-1980s onwards to mature into government was preparing once again to indulge in the comfort of opposition.

First, there was the insistence by a number of MPs that Labour should give up on the idea of trying to forge a “progressive alliance”, following Gordon Brown’s announcement that he would step down as party leader. True, the arithmetic appeared improbable, and reliance on a “rainbow coalition” including the nationalists would have been slammed by an almost universally hostile media.

But there was still a chance, as Paddy Ashdown argued at the time, that Labour and the Liberal Democrats could have formed a minority government and “dared” others to vote its agenda down. That chance was snuffed out by an unholy alliance of hard-left purists such as Dianne Abott and anti-Brown outriders who played no obvious role in campaigning for Labour during the election, such as John Reid.

Next, many across the party parroted the notion that Labour needs a period in opposition to “renew”. Yet there were two flaws. First, as one back-channel source at the heart of the Lab-Lib talks put it despairingly: “They want to go into opposition. This reminds me of 1979, when people said we needed a year or two out of government, and 18 years later we were still there.”

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Second, those MPs who called for Labour to go into opposition put what they perceived (perhaps wrongly) to be their own interests above those of the country. Some may have wanted to “avoid” the cuts programme to come, but they must have believed in their hearts that Britain would be better off with Labour cuts rather than Tory ones.

Although these arguments are now academic, Labour’s behaviour on leaving office may help provide lessons for how it may return to government.

Which brings us to the leadership race that is under way. The decision today by the party’s NEC to opt for a longer contest has been almost universally celebrated by Labour people. But it also poses a great threat to the party’s standing in the country.

The public will not like months of infighting, and many voters — especially former Lib Dems who did not want to crown David Cameron — will be looking for a strong opposition to the Lib-Con coalition.

With the NEC decision made, however, the responsibility is on all the candidates to ensure that the fight is extra-clean, and that the party unites the minute it has decided on its new leader.

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