Harriet Harman has rejected the proposal that a new Labour leader should be put up for re-election in three years’ time, as she announced a “truth and reconciliation” commission to discover why her party lost the general election.
The interim Labour leader said she disagreed with a suggestion from the shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, supported by leadership hopeful Liz Kendall, that the party should have an early chance to dismiss the new leader if he or she were found wanting. Harman said that, once a leader was elected under the new “one-person, one-vote” system, it was “for them to be getting on and doing that job” for five years.
The intervention will be a blow for Kendall who, as a relatively inexperienced candidate, may have felt she would have a better chance of winning in a few years’ time should a more established figure, such as frontrunner Andy Burnham, be chosen in September.
Harman also revealed that she had privately voiced her concerns to the candidates – Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Kendall and Mary Creagh – that while campaigning they might let the Conservatives go unopposed.
Harman, who was also interim leader in 2010 when Gordon Brown lost the general election, told the Observer: “We did not get the job of being in government, but we did get the job of being the official opposition, and that is a very important part of democracy, and they are not on leave from that: I have definitely said [that] to them in the shadow cabinet.
“The leadership candidates really need to be showing they can scrutinise and hold the Tories to account and land blows on them, because that is what they are going to need to do if they become leader of the opposition.
“It is not just a beauty contest. They have got to show that they can really do the job and the job is taking on the Tories. It is important to be reminding them. The eyes of the party are on them.”
Former deputy Labour leader Margaret Beckett will be leading a commission to examine “in a forensic way” the reasons behind Labour’s election defeat, Harman said. A process in which everyone could have their say would pre-empt “dirty tricks”, she said, amid claims that some of the candidates were holding “negative briefings”.
“I liken it to turbulence on an aircraft,” she said. “The crew are well-trained, but some people will be running up and down the gangway. Actually the aircraft is not going to crash. I think in a way if you give people the opportunity privately and publicly and you show you want to listen, there is no reason for people to do any spiteful briefings.
“We want at the end of this truth and reconciliation commission to have a better and honest understanding of why we ended up in this situation, but we need to be united and coherent in order to be attacking the government and also to make sure we are in a united position to go forward.”
Her comments come as Labour’s new shadow chancellor, Chris Leslie, made a striking criticism of Ed Miliband’s pledge to cap domestic fuel bills in an interview in the business pages of the Observer. Leslie, shadow chief secretary to the Treasury under Miliband, claimed the policy gave the impression Labour wanted to take over markets.
“At the time it felt popular because people were fed up with prices, but of course when wholesale prices fell away it allowed the Tories to mock the idea,” he said.
“Because of the desire to look radical we tended to go into that, ‘run, control, take over’ space, rather than ‘step in, fix, and then let consumers have the power to choose for themselves.”
Harman said that it appeared to her that people only made their decision to reject Labour in the final moments. “It is quite striking from the candidates – even those who have won and lost before and really know what it feels like when you are winning or losing – that they thought they were winning. It certainly seems from what they are saying, although I don’t want to jump ahead [of the commission], that there were a large number of people undecided and made up their minds at the last minute and stuck with the devil they knew.
“There is some anecdotal information about people hovering outside the polling stations thinking should I do this or that. It is down to us to find out why we couldn’t convince people to trust us.”
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