The Labour leadership hopeful Andy Burnham has moved to silence critics who have accused his supporters of sexism by repeating his pledge to appoint a gender-balanced shadow cabinet and a female Commons deputy.
Burnham was speaking following warnings by his leadership rivals Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper that Labour needed to guard against being a party run only by men, amid allegations that Burnham’s supporters had displayed arrogance over the issue.
Cooper said there was a “retro” feel to the campaign, redolent of a previous era, and called for a revamp of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the wake of the government’s attack on equality. She also warned her own party against electing men as both leader and deputy.
Current polling has Jeremy Corbyn and Burnham as the frontrunners for the leadership election, while it looks likely that Tom Watson will win the deputy contest ahead of three women: Stella Creasy, Angela Eagle and Caroline Flint.
Burnham, speaking on Sky’s Murnaghan programme on Sunday, angrily rejected claims of sexism shown by his campaign’s supporters. “We should keep it positive,” he said. “There are more women MPs backing my campaign than any other so I just completely reject that analysis. Throwing around allegations like that at this stage in the Labour leadership contest is not going to help anybody.”
He denied anyone in his camp was urging the female candidates to stand aside to make it easier for him to defeat Corbyn, saying all four candidates had added something to the contest.
Burnham also repeated a pledge he made last month to appoint a woman to deputise as the leader of the opposition in his absence – a separate role from deputy leader of the party – which will be decided by party members and announced on 12 September at the same time as that of leader. “I’ve said I would appoint a woman deputy to me in the Commons and have a balanced shadow cabinet,” he said.
The sexism row was sparked by an article in the Times by one of his supporters, Lord Falconer, that had been given a headline that the newspaper admitted was misleading.
Flint, one of the deputy leadership candidates, also warned the Burnham camp, saying: “I think candidates have to be mindful of the things they say which can give a perception somehow that there is a gender divide.”
In other remarks given to Sky, Burnham acknowledged that Corbyn’s popularity in the leadership contest so far was down to his rival’s principles. He said “Jeremy is a very principled man and he clearly has had a lot of things to say that resonated with the Labour party.
“The reason he is attracting support because people are fed up with the way modern politics has been – politicians speaking in soundbites, sticking to the script – and people are rejecting that style of politics”.
But Burnham said that he too offered that kind of approach “telling it like it is and inspiring people with my ideas”. He also said there was a case for reintroducing the 50p top rate of tax.
Burnham said that, like Corbyn, he was on record as wanting greater public ownership of the railways, but added he did not think “the country could afford widespread nationalisation”. Instead, he said publicly run firms should be looked at when franchises expired, something the government rejects. He said the “public want to see more public control and ownership of the railways, and we need a policy that progressively allows that”.
However, he refused to say whether Corbyn would be given a berth in a Burnham shadow cabinet, saying only: “It would be important to recognise how the party has voted and the mood in the party and of course I will work hard to unite the party coming out of this contest.”
Meanwhile, Corbyn told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that Karl Marx was a brilliant analyst and philosopher, but avoided describing himself as a Marxist, saying instead it was an interesting question about which he had not thought for some time.
He said: “Marx analysed what was happening in a quite brilliant way. The philosophy around Marx is absolutely fascinating. Does it all apply now? Philosophy applies at all times.”
Corbyn also refused to say whether he would vote for the UK to stay in or leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum. “It’s not that simple,” he said. “What I would say is this: the way that Greece is being treated is creating a humanitarian crisis.
“All that bailout to Greece has actually gone back to the banks, it has not gone to the Greek people,” he said.
“Rather than giving Cameron a free hand to do whatever he wants, and they say we’re going to support him, I think we have got to be part of the pressure [on him].”
Corbyn reiterated his desire to renationalise the railways and utilities, arguing that Labour lost the election because it was “too close to the economic orthodoxy”.
On the issue of public ownership, Corbyn denied he was taking an “extreme position” and said the public agreed.
“The role of the state or government,” he said, “is surely to provide people with some security in their lives, to provide them with a decent health service free at the point of use, to provide them with a welfare state that stops people falling into destitution. We are not doing that – we are making it worse.
“Where there are natural monopolies like Royal Mail, like the railways, it seems to me counterintuitive that we spend a great deal of money on investing in railway infrastructure, billions, and then we hand it over to train-operating companies to run it. I think it is much better if we bring the rail system as a whole into public ownership. It’s not some extreme position.”
Corbyn also said he believed the 50p top tax rate should be reintroduced and corporation tax should rise.
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