The Labour leadership contenders at the Progress conference last month. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

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. 

***

Now listen to George discussing the Labour leadership contest on the NS podcast:

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

0800 7318496