Andy Burnham, the favourite for the Labour leadership, warned that the party should be careful not to distance itself from everything it has stood for in the last five years, as the candidates addressed a hustings for the parliamentary party.
Burnham spoke at the meeting on Monday alongside the shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, shadow care minister, Liz Kendall, shadow development secretary, Mary Creagh, and leftwing backbencher Jeremy Corbyn, as MPs make up their minds about who to support for the leadership.
According to people present at the private meeting, there was a clear contrast between the positions of Burnham and Kendall, cast as the Blairite candidate, while Cooper made her pitch as the most experienced, safest choice.
The shadow health secretary, who has more than 50 MPs behind him, told the meeting he was not just running a leadership bid but a campaign for the party to win in 2020.
He talked about the “need for big change that meant strong leadership” and argued that he was dealing with the most difficult issues from the outset: the deficit, business, welfare, immigration and Europe. But while talking of the need for radical changes, he also cautioned Labour not to throw away everything from the period when Ed Miliband was in charge, saying the party needed to “take care not to distance ourselves from the last five years”, particularly on Miliband’s central concern about inequality.
A supporter of Kendall said she made it obvious this was not her position, and repeatedly underlined the scale of the challenge facing the party. Before a GMB hustings in Dublin on Tuesday, Kendall told the meeting that just as the Labour party needs to change, the trade unions need to change as well in terms of “recognising the world of work as it is” and that means a presence in both the private and public sector.
There was also a clear difference of opinion between Burnham and Kendall on the issue of Europe. He said he would like the party to make its arguments separately from the official campaign, after learning the lessons of collaborating with the Tories as part of Better Together in Scotland. However, Kendall made the case that Labour should not shut itself out from the official yes campaign to stay in the EU, saying a boycott would be a big mistake.
Cooper pitched herself as the most experienced, capable candidate, asking the room who they would most want to sit behind at prime minister’s questions. A supporter came out of the meeting saying she was “the only one who’s willing to change but not ditch our values at the same time”.
Both Burnham and Cooper also warned against being too close to the Tories in a message that will be interpreted as a swipe at Kendall, who argues that the party needs to move further into the centre and appeal to people who voted Conservative this time.
One backer of Burnham said “good luck with that” to the idea of Kendall trying to get grassroots Labour support while being in favour of free schools.
This article was written by Rowena Mason Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Monday 8th June 2015 16.53 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010