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8 June 2015updated 09 Jun 2015 1:38pm

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. 

By George Eaton

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). 

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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:

 

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