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Debate is not a luxury

Compass Chair Neal Lawson argues that the Deputy Leadership election, if it happens, is clearly the key opportunity to debate the Labour Party's future.

With three cabinet ministers - Peter Hain, Alan Johnson and Hilary Benn - apparently refusing to debate until a vacancy occurs with the resignation of Deputy Leader John Prescott and pressure from the right-wing of the Party to call off the election on cost grounds there is a risk there will be no debate.

Yet the need for Party renewal can never have been so starkly contasted to Labour's seeming inability and unwillingness to renew itself. Recent events show the scale of the task: a decision on Trident followed by a meaningless consultation: a Prime Minister interviewed in Downing Street over cash for coronets and the rule of law taking second place to commercial interests over arms sales to Saudi Arabia. A few thousand more Party members will have decided that if Labour cannot renew itself they won't renew their membership for 2007.

The race for the Deputy Leadership provides a wonderful opportunity to have the debate but too many of the candidates seem intent on flunking it. Despite active campaigns, the three cabinet member candidates have made a united decision they will not participate in public hustings with non ministerial candidates until after the May elections, when it will be too late to influence the outcome. By then a front runner will have emerged in which will be little more than a 'beauty contest' based on personality not principle.

Their defence is that it will distract and divide the Party when the real enemy are the Tories and the other opposition parties. If this were the case why did they announce their candidacy so early? The 'real enemy' of Labour is the impossibility of renewal without real debate.

Opportunities for real debate come round rarely. It is now 12 years since Labour last had a proper vote on its political direction. Then members were shell shocked by four successive election defeats. Winning rightly took precedence. Now there is a chance to reflect, discuss and crucially debate how Labour can win again, but with a greater sense of political purpose.

It's not just the style of the deputy leadership election that is at stake but the substance. Peter Hain, one of the cabinet candidates, 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 going to be stigmatised because of what they wear and our civil liberties then again debate is essential. Finally if David Cameron is going to be allowed to pose as the leader who cares most about the rising tide of povery in our country then a debate about Labour's aims is not a luxury but a necessity.

Of course it's harder renewing yourself in government in the full glare of the media. But the Labour Party isn't the creature of the eighties, riven with Trotskyite infiltrators. The activists who remain are a pretty sensible lot. They should be trusted with the ability to participate in a positive debate about the Party's future. They should be allowed to question and compare candidates. Instead cabinet ministers with ready access to the media and therefore party membership are using those appearances to attack others standing for the deputy post while refusing the debate with them in public. They can't have it both ways.

Rumours now abound that the election will actually be called off. If Gordon Brown does not get a challenger because they can't get the nominations then it is argued what is the point of spending £2m to ballot party and union members standing for a 'minor' post when the Party is already in debt to the tune of £24m? Well, what price democracy?

A party dying on its knees must find ways to rediscover its voice, its confidence and its purpose. How on earth is the Labour Party to discuss any notion of renewal and a change of direction if cabinet candidates for its deputy leadership post refuse to utter a word against the current direction of travel?

But this is our game too and we will continue to play. Compass will at some point soon ballot its members on who to support.

Let the debate about Labour's future begin.