The Labour leadership contenders at the Progress conference last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour leadership candidates clash on the EU and the past at PLP hustings

Frontrunner Burnham warns that Labour must "take care not to distance ourselves from the last five years" on the issue of inequality. 

A large number of Labour MPs have been waiting for the Parliamentary Labour Party hustings before endorsing a candidate (nominations formally open tomorrow). But this afternoon's event - held behind closed doors in The Attlee Suite - did little to change the dynamic of the race. 

It was the economy, regarded as the central reason for Labour's defeat, that dominated the debate, with no questions on foreign affairs. Andy Burnham, the frontrunner, told the assembled MPs and peers that "We don't win  when we copy the Tories, we win when we're better than them" (a coded attack on rival candidate Liz Kendall). The northern shadow health secretary also called for the party to re-establish an "emotional connection" with voters and to have "a voice that will carry" outside "the Westminster bubble". He outlined his ambition of a country "where everyone has the chance to get on", adopting a more aspirational pitch than Ed Miliband, and described himself as the "big change" candidate. But in a line that his opponents will exploit, Burnham also warned in reference to inequality that "We need to take care not to distance ourselves from the last five years". 

Liz Kendall, the only 2010 MP standing, framed herself as the "change candidate", warning that Labour would lose if it offered "more of the same". She declared: "I don't want to be the Labour leader who plays into David Cameron and George Osborne's hands". One of her supporters, Chuka Umunna, told me afterwards that if Labour replicated its 2010 approach of "simply opposing" every cut in the Budget and the Spending Review "we know what the result will be". Kendall also told MPs that "We won't help the weak by just railing against the strong" (a repudiation of Ed Miliband's relentless attack on "vested interests") and that the party must "debate, decide and then unite". For Kendall, "unity", a quality emphasised by Burnham, is worthless if it means not facing up the scale of the defeat. 

Yvette Cooper again presented herself as the centrist candidate between the left-leaning Burnham and the right-leaning Kendall, warning that "We can't just reach for comfort blankets" (Burnham) or "turn into the Tories" (Kendall). She recalled her sadness at meeting a Normanton voter in tears over the bedroom tax and declared that "We won't abolish the bedroom tax by only talking about the bedroom tax", denouncing Miliband's approach as "too narrow". As an MP since 1997 and a former cabinet minister, she traded on her experience, telling the party: "Remember the person you choose, you’ll be sitting behind every week for the next five years in Prime Minister's Questions – we need someone who will take Cameron on, not be taken apart. You know I would relish the chance to do that."

MPs from all sides suggest that there were no flashpoints in the "comradely" debate but Kendall opened up a significant dividing line between herself and Burnham when she warned that it would be a "profound mistake" for Labour "to somehow boycott" the EU Yes campaign. Last week, the shadow health secretary pledged to establish a separate pro-EU Labour group, arguing that he had "learned the lessons" of Scotland (when the party was attacked by the SNP for campaigning alongisde the Tories in Better Together). Cooper argued that choosing between being part of a cross-party Yes campaign and running a separate Labour campaign was a "false choice" because the most effective way to make the argument was at a local level (for instance, talking about the jobs that would be lost in factories in her constituency). 

The mood of the camps was little changed from before. Burnham's remain confident that he will hold his frontrunner position (he won five new endorsements following the hustings), Cooper's that she is well positioned to win from the centre and Kendall's that her "change candidate" status will give her the edge. One thing today's hustings has clarified, however, is that there will almost certainly only be three candidates on the ballot paper. Mary Creagh and Jeremy Corbyn, the two other contenders, are both well short of the 35 nominations (15 per cent of MPs) they need. Burnham's camp are resistant to the idea of lending Corbyn supporters (as David Miliband did with Diane Abbott in 2010), with one senior figure telling me that he was opposed to a "Westminster stitch-up". Without one, however, there is no path to the ballot for the left-winger. 

Burnham's five new supporters are Andy McDonald, Alex Cunningham, Heidi Alexander, Carolyn Harris and Valerie Vaz. 

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George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.