Labour result ‘too close to call’ as last-minute rifts emerge

Published on The Guardian.co.uk, by Patrick Wintour and Nicholas Watt , Sept. 24, 2010.

The potential rifts facing the new Labour leader are laid bare tomorrow when one of the party’s most senior figures, Alan Johnson, warns against a lurch from the party’s current stance on the deficit, and says “a return of the union finger jabbers” would weaken public opposition to the spending cuts.

Ed Miliband, the self-styled change candidate, became the last-minute favourite to be declared Labour’s 18th elected leader tomorrow – in what would be a dramatic overtaking of his elder brother David, following strong union support and a late shift among MPs … // 

… In his interview, Johnson urged the new leader to train his main fire on the Conservatives, and not the Liberal Democrats. “We have to recognise this is a Conservative government, and the Liberal Democrats are a soft target. There is nothing wrong in the Liberal Democrats joining the coalition,” he said.

Johnson, arguably the most senior figure to put his name forward for the shadow cabinet elections, also urged the party not become over-focused on the Liberal Democrats.

“The Lib Dems are a soft target, but they are not the target we should be aiming at. This is a Conservative government. Cameron is the target,” he insisted.

In what is believed to reflect David Miliband’s thoughts, Johnson said he would prefer it if the referendum on the change to the voting system for the Commons was delayed for much longer into the parliament and combined with a vote on introducing an elected Lords. “I hope as we look at new directions and fresh thinking we go back to asking the British people the important question which is ‘do you want a change to proportional representation?’” he said.

In the other gathering controversy in the Labour movement – how to campaign against the cuts – Johnson, a former union general secretary, urged the unions to heed the “very rational calm approach” of the TUC general secretary Brendan Barber about how to win popular support.

“You don’t want a return of the finger jabbers, the shouting and screaming vitriol. There is a place for marches, but really what matters is unions as the persuaders, able to argue a rational case and genuinely form an alliance with the public.”

He reminded the unions: “The amazing thing about 1979 was how easily Thatcher just destroyed the influence of trade unions.” He insisted there was not great ideological difference between the candidates, but praised David Miliband for being the only candidate to point out no business supported Labour at the last election. (full text).

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