The four Labour leadership candidates clashed in the first televised hustings over the budget deficit, immigration, welfare and political strategy as the leftwing candidate Jeremy Corbyn urged his rivals to recognise that “the elephant in the room” remained Tony Blair’s decision to join the US-led war in Iraq.
At the BBC Newsnight hustings debate Corbyn, Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham came close to saying that they would be willing to stand down if, in two years, they were proving to be unsuccessful leaders.
Kendall and Corbyn said they would back plans being advanced inside the parliamentary party to make it easier for Labour MPs to dislodge the party leader.
Kendall, the shadow health minister and self-styled change candidate, said she believed she would be be the leader whom the Tories would fear, but added that she backed the proposed leadership reforms. Corbyn said the leader should be up for re-election every two years.
The BBC hustings in the swing Warwickshire seat of Nuneaton – a constituency Labour failed to win in the 2015 election – was held in front of an audience billed as open to voting Labour, and one that seemed open to the rhetoric provided by Corbyn.
The sceptical audience also expressed frustration at the lack of specifics from the four-strong panel.
In the opening statements, Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said she recognised that there are no easy answers and said the focus of the party had been too narrow. She added that as a working mother it would be fantastic to break the final glass ceiling and elect the party’s first woman leader and first Labour prime minister.
Burnham said David Cameron had left the country more divided than ever before and worried about its future not least because the prime minister stokes division in his own political interests. He promised: “I will be better than that. I will care about Britain.”
Kendall said: “I’m not Blairite, Brownite, Old Labour or New Labour. I want to be tomorrow’s Labour”. Kendall appeared to suggest that Burnham and Cooper had amassed “baggage” as a result of their links to Blair and Gordon Brown. “I think we do need a fresh start, and I don’t have the baggage of the past,” she said.
Corbyn said that Labour had lost its way: “We have been cowed by powerful commercial interests, frightened of the press, frightened to stand up for what we absolutely believe in.”
Burnham tried to defend past Labour regimes: “Tony did a lot of good things, as did Gordon Brown [and] so did Ed Miliband. Let’s build on those things. I am a true Labour man and I am true to our roots.”
Corbyn said there were some serious problems with Blair’s leadership, including destruction of internal party democracy, the promotion of markets rather than a planned economy and the “price still being paid” for the UK’s involvement in the Iraq war.
Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said immigration was important for Britain but that it must be “managed and fair”. She argued for proper enforcement of the rules, more border staff and fair benefit rules but warned against strong rhetoric against immigration because of its divisiveness.
Kendall used the toughest language by highlighting the “anger and concern” people were feeling. “They are angry about people trying to get into this country illegally, scrambling on to lorries in Calais,” she said. “If you come here legally from Europe, you should come to work and not claim benefits. You should respect the community you live in and our culture, and for people outside Europe we need a strict points-based system like they have in Australia.”
She also pointed toward the benefits that immigration can bring and vowed not to “out-Ukip Ukip” by promising a country that is “not coming back”.
Burnham also said Labour had been too shy about tackling immigration and this was the prime example of an area where Labour need to get out of the Westminster bubble. He cited a worker who was the only person on his shift speaking English, and would not be impressed by politicians talking purely about the benefits of immigration.
“We have not realised how quickly immigration has changed some communities and some people’s lives,” he said. “The answer is freedom to work here but not freedom to claim ... And also as part of this European negotiation, we must stop the undercutting of British jobs and wages by companies employing people overseas and bringing them in together to replace whole shifts.
Kendall said that Britain should be prepared to run a budget surplus “when the times are good” as she appeared to offer support for George Osborne’s plan to change the law to ensure the UK always runs an overall budget surplus in “normal times”.
Kendall made the commitment after challenging Jeremy Corbyn ’s view that Osborne was wrong, in an impassioned intervention in which Corbyn asked why so many people are begging on the streets.
She even challenged Newsnight presenter Laura Kuenssberg after she wrongly suggested that Osborne wants to pass a law to ensure there is “always and forever a budget surplus”.
Kendall said: “That is not actually what they are saying. We should be aiming to run a surplus when the times are good because we want to bring our debt down so we can spend money on the things we really care about.”
In response to Corbyn, Kendall said: “I don’t agree with Jeremy on this. People didn’t trust us on the economy or with their taxes. I believe in strong public finances because unless we balance the books, live within our means and get the deficit and debt down, we can’t do all the things we are passionate about – like tackling inequality or homelessness. We have to back businesses. We should be supporting people who bust a gut to set something up and work hard and create money.”
Cooper said it was important to challenge the Tory narrative on the deficit. “If you go back and look at what happened before the financial crash I just don’t think we should buy this Tory myth that somehow it was too many teachers or doctors or nurses under a Labour government to cause Lehman Brothers bank in New York to crash. It wasn’t.”
Nuneaton was chosen by Labour as the venue for the first debate since it was one of the key seats that Labour had to win in England to prevent the Tories gaining an overall Commons majority. Labour needed just a 2.3% swing to overturn a 2,069 Tory majority, but instead the sitting Tory MP Marcus Jones saw his majority rise to a 4,882 on an overall 3% swing, a result that was replicated across the East Midlands. Ukip, not a presence in 2010 election, took 14.4% of the vote, while the Liberal Democrat vote fell from 6,846 to 816.
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