The luxury of hindsight

The last time we chose a new Leader was in 2007.

Gordon Brown was elected unopposed.

There were vocal complaints that there had not been a proper contest.

There can’t be that complaint on this occasion. We had a contest and a half.

Five candidates. Four months. Scores of hustings.

The candidates were dropping by the end. The result a cliff-hanger.

An exhaustive ‘alternative vote’ system meant that it went five rounds – and suddenly the younger Milliband, Ed, had won. A gasp went round the hall.

I gave my first preference to the elder Milliband, David; my next vote to the North-West’s own Andy Burnham, former Health Secretary, and MP for Leigh.

But four of the five candidates were each capable of doing the job; and any doubts I might have had about the winner, Ed Milliband, were lifted by the speech which he made to Labour’s Conference in Manchester on Tuesday afternoon.

Whatever the party, the post of Leader of the Opposition is the worst in British politics.

You have huge responsibilities – above all to lead your party to victory – and none of the power and authority which naturally comes with government.

The Leader’s speech at a party conference is the most difficult he or she will make in any year.

At least in normal times the Leader has the summer to work on it.

Ed Milliband had three days. In my view he pulled it off.

Critically he confronted three demons the party has to face. First was the deficit. He was right to say that in Government Labour would have had to make uncomfortable cuts in spending; that we wouldn’t oppose all cuts – but we did oppose the scale and the pace of the cuts now being planned by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

He was right to spell out that he would oppose ‘overblown rhetoric’ and ‘irresponsible strikes’.

And he was right above all to say that it was not the fault of the British people, but of Labour that we had lost five million voters since those heady days of the 1997 General Election.

Unsurprisingly I do not share Ed’s view about Iraq.

He said – and I believe him – that he was making no criticism of those who made the decision.

It was horrendously difficult. The problem with decisions is that you never have the luxury of hindsight.

I set out in my evidence to the Iraq Inquiry why I believed that we made the right judgement at the time.

Ed also made me sit up when he said that when the new Justice Secretary says we should look at short sentences in prison because of high re-offending “I’m not going to say he’s soft on crime”.

I’m open to look at any issue.

But re-offending by short term prisoners is high not because prison is a failure, but because these offenders have been tried time and again on probation or other community punishments – and have still gone on to commit more crimes.

96 per cent have seven or more convictions – often for scores of offences.

But overall I’ll give it eight out of ten. For me – it was my last platform speech. For Ed, the start of a long journey.

I wish him luck.

Author: Jack Straw

Jack Straw was elected as the MP for Blackburn in 1979 and is currently the Secretary of State for Justice.

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