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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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