Labour's acting leader Harriet Harman speaks at the party's HQ in Brewer's Green. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Has Harriet Harman just come out against Andy Burnham?

Labour's acting leader warns the party not to choose "somebody who we can feel comfortable with" but who can "command the confidence of the country". 

Harriet Harman is determined to use her time as Labour's acting leader to do more than merely mind the shop. She wants to move the party to what she regards as a more politically and economically credible position. This is causing tensions with others at the top of Labour. At the most recent shadow cabinet meeting, Andy Burnham warned against offering too little opposition to austerity, prompting Harman to reply: "But Andy, we lost that argument. You may have noticed that we lost the election." Burnham, in the words of one shadow cabinet member, "winced" in response and was not defended by any of his supporters. 

When asked about the exchange on The Sunday Politics, Harman's response was revealing: "I do say to all those people who are going to be voting in the leadership election, think not who you like and who makes you feel comfortable - think who actually will be able to reach out to the public and actually listen to the public and give them confidence, so that we can have a better result next time than we did last time. The point is not to have somebody who we can feel comfortable with, the point is to have somebody who can command the confidence of the country and that's what they should have in their mind. There's no point doing choice in a disappointed rage, we've got to be doing choice for the future."

Her answer sounded like a rejection of Burnham, the frontrunner, who has frequently been attacked as "the comfort zone" candidate and as "continuity Miliband". It could even be interpreted as an endorsement of Liz Kendall ("not to have somebody who we can feel comfortable with"), who is trailing in fourth place having adopted the toughest line of any of the contenders on the deficit and welfare. Harman will not formally endorse any candidate but by making her views so clear, she has intervened decisively in the debate. 

Labour's acting leader also used the interview to announce that the party would not oppose the reduced household benefit cap (£23,000 in London and £20,000 elsewhere) or the two-child limit on tax credits. "We won't oppose the welfare bill, we won't oppose the household benefit cap, I mean, for example, what they've brought forward in relation to restricting benefits and tax credits for people with three or more children. What we've got to do is listen to what people round the country said to us and recognise that we didn't get elected - again ... They want us to listen to their concerns and we've got to recognise why it is that the Tories are in government and not us, not because people love the Tories particularly but because they didn't trust us on the economy and benefits. We have to listen to that and respond." 

Update: An aide to Harman emphasises that she made the same points in her speech at the outset of the leadership contest and that her words should not be interpreted as favourable or disfavourable to any candidate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.