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

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.