Supporters of the Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn are playing a dangerous game by resorting to inflammatory language which risks a return to the splits and factionalism of the 1980s, Andy Burnham has said.
In a sign of the shadow cabinet’s deep concerns about the growing confidence of Corbyn’s supporters in the trade unions and in the party as a whole, the fellow candidate said “loud warnings” and alarm bells were starting to sound.
Speaking to the Guardian before the launch of his leadership manifesto next week, Burnham said he attached no blame to Corbyn. But he said of some of his supporters: “There are dangers here, there are some echoes of the early ‘80s. Those should ring loud warnings, alarm bells.”
The intervention by the shadow health secretary came at the end of a week in which Corbyn appeared to cement his position as the frontrunner after winning the support of the largest trade unions and edging ahead in the number of nominations from constitituency Labour parties.
The contest was electrified 10 days ago when a YouGov/Times poll gave Corbyn a 17-point lead on first preference votes over Burnham. The Daily Mirror reported this week that leaked private Labour polling gave Corbyn a 20-point lead over Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary.
In his Guardian interview, Burnham singled out Dave Ward, the general secretary of the Communications Workers Union, who endorsed Corbyn with a claim that he would act as the “antidote” to the Blairite “virus” in the party. The intervention by Ward followed the decision of the Unite and Unison unions to endorse Corbyn.
Burnham said of Ward’s remarks: “That is very provocative and frankly unhelpful. There is a factionalism that is bubbling under here which, to his credit, Jeremy has not [endorsed] … There is a risk though of a split if people talk in that provocative way.
“I think the language is becoming inflammatory. The CWU showed that. It really doesn’t help to talk in those terms. It just fuels the sense, it just adds fire to the factionalism that is there. That is a dangerous game.”
Burnham praised Corbyn for energising the campaign. “Jeremy is representing a break with politics. There are no soundbites, there is no script. It is that which I think people are finding very attractive.
“The party is hungry for something different. It wants a bigger thing. It has been fed this diet of this thin, meagre gruel of gimmicky policies. It is hungry. That is why it laps it up.”
But Burnham said the atmosphere, which saw Ed Balls mocked at one rally for losing his seat, risked a return to the early 1980s when the Labour party split after the “gang of four” broke away to form the Social Democrat party and Neil Kinnock battled with the Militant Tendency after his election as Labour leader in 1983.
“There is a real historical parallel here,” he said. “This is actually the big consideration for people as we get into the final stages of this race. Labour needs to reflect on this and not go down that path.”
Burnham admitted that he took a “hit” when he agreed to abstain in a Commons vote on the government’s welfare bill after calling on Labour’s interim leader, Harriet Harman, to allow the party to oppose the measure.
However, he will try to revive his campaign next week with the launch of a personal manifesto. “It will set out the most radical Labour vision since the post-war government.”
Burnham said he would appoint a commission along the lines of the report by William Beveridge in the 1940s to oversee the funding of his two key pledges:
• To break down the barriers between technical and academic education, with fairer funding through a new graduate tax.
• To deliver his long-held dream of bringing together the health and social care system, funded through a means-tested levy.
Burnham said the leadership contest had now become a choice between what he described as two rival visions on the left: a credible revival of the spirit of Clement Attlee’s pioneering post-war government under him, and an “undeliverable” package under Corbyn. “It is a big win for Labour party members if this race becomes a competition of alternative big visions for the country.”
Burnham raised concerns that the rules of the leadership contest, which allow anyone to take part if they pay £3 and register as a Labour supporter, would need to be reviewed after the election. “The party is getting a little nervy about it. We have had assurances that appropriate checks are being made and some are being weeded out.”
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