The surprise frontrunner in the Labour leadership contest, Jeremy Corbyn, found himself facing a potential exodus of talent from the front bench if he became party leader with Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna all saying that they would not serve in a shadow cabinet led by him.
Labour’s leadership battle turned increasingly nasty on Wednesday as Corbyn argued with Tony Blair over the future of the party, while the camps of Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper both claimed that only their candidate could ultimately defeat the leftwinger.
At a leadership hustings organised by LBC, Kendall said on Wednesday night that she would not serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet: “It would be disastrous for the party and disastrous for the country and we would be out of power for a generation. I don’t want to be a party of protest and I would not be able to stop myself from making that case”.
Initially, Cooper said she was torn about whether she would serve, saying: “In terms of politics I don’t think you should walk away from the Labour party, and I would never do what the SDP did.” She said she would give it considerable thought, before finally confirming she would not stand in any shadow cabinet elections if Corbyn was leader.
Umunna said he would not serve in a Corbyn-led shadow cabinet, adding that he thought the party would be “unelectable” under Corbyn’s leadership .
Burnham said he would serve under Corbyn, arguing: “It was really important that the party came out of the election united. We are not going to get anywhere by running factional politics”.
Corbyn said he could cope without Umunna in his shadow cabinet.
When pressed by Cooper to say if he was really standing to be prime minister or just to be part of a protest movement in the Labour party, he replied: “I am doing this because I want our party to change, and I am [doing] this to put myself to doing the job. If I am elected I would like to promote an awful lot of changes to bring about a more collective approach about the way we do things.
“If all we offer them for the next five years is austerity-lite, cuts in welfare and very little else other than appearing to being approved of by certain rightwing newspapers it does not excite people. This Tory government is very ideological and we are accepting too much of what they are doing.”
Corbyn also refused to say whether he would vote for the country to remain in the EU in a referendum next year.
Elsewhere in the debate, three of the candidates admitted they had smoked cannabis at university, but Corbyn replied that he was “really boring” and that he had never done so.
Earlier, Corbyn took issue with claims by the former prime minister that he was the Tory preference – and hit back by pointing out that Blair has a big problem waiting for the outcome of the government’s Chilcot inquiry into why he had taken Britain to war in Iraq in 2003.
Blair had provoked Corbyn by telling the Progress centre-left thinktank that people whose heart was with the leftwing candidate should “get a transplant”. In his first intervention in the Labour leadership election, the former prime minister said the party will never win with a traditional left platform, saying it will instead endure four election defeats in a row.
Blair said that Labour’s 2015 election campaign was based old-fashioned tax-and-spend agenda drawn from the Star Trek era, and adding that it was “out of the playbook of the 1980s”.
The former Labour leader was speaking after a shock YouGov opinion poll published by the Times showing Corbyn is set to defeat Burnham in the final ballot by 53% to 47%.
Supporters of Burnham said the YouGov findings showed Cooper, third in the poll, was dead in the water. Her team countered by saying that she could still get into the final ballot after other candidates are eliminated, and if she did so was the more likely to defeat Corbyn since she could attract a wider range of support.
Cooper also launched an attack on interim leader Harriet Harman’s handling of Monday night’s welfare vote. She said: “It is a complete mess ... I don’t think it has been handled right. I think we should be opposing the bill. The mess we got into has made everyone confused. A messy compromise was made to try to hold the party together and it has failed.”
Corbyn was the only one of the four leaders in the debate to say he would give Ed Miliband a job if he was elected saying he would ask him to be energy secretary, a job he had previously done well.
A third of the 55,000 new members joining the party since the 2015 election are under 30, and the single most common age is 18, the national executive were told this week. Corbyn has targeted these new members with promises to abolish tuition fees and a rejection of the 2015 election campaign as austerity-lite.
In remarks to Progress, Blair expressed astonishment at the party’s reluctance to learn lessons from its defeats: “There’s no need to go through four election defeats to get to the place that it’s pretty obvious we should be now,” he said.
He said he did not support Corbyn, but suggested that he would not quit Labour should the leftwinger become leader. He said he was “Labour through and through”.
Blair said the party should not act as though it was not in favour of reforming public services or regaining economic credibility out of a misplaced sense of principle.
“If we do, then the public won’t vote for us, not because our thoughts are too pure, but because they’re too out of touch with the world they live in,” he said. Blair also said the SNP has a “reactionary” ideology similar to that of a caveman.
The former prime minister said the SNP was “blaming someone else” for Scotland’s problems and that Labour had to criticise the Scottish government head-on to regain power.
He said: “Nationalism is not a new phenomenon. When the SNP talk about a new politics it is the oldest politics in the world. It is the politics of the first caveman council where the caveman came out from the council where there had been difficult decisions and pointed with his club across the forest and said, ‘there over there, they are the problem’. It’s blame someone else. However you dress it up, it is a reactionary political philosophy.”
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