Labour leadership hopeful Yvette Cooper has admitted that there have been behind-the-scenes manoeuvrings to persuade candidates to bow out of the race to prevent veteran leftwing MP Jeremy Corbyn from winning.
Against a backdrop of increasingly desperate interventions from senior party figures appealing for those registered to vote to back anyone but Corbyn, ballot papers are expected to start arriving through the letterboxes on Monday of the 450,000 people who have registered to take part – many in the wake of Corbyn’s breakthrough in the polls.
The Daily Telegraph reported on Sunday night that former Labour cabinet minister Peter Mandelson attempted a “secret plot” to convince Corbyn’s three rival candidates – Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall – to pull out to annul the contest.
“I’ve not discussed this with Peter Mandelson,” said Cooper on Monday. “I gather there was some view that maybe the whole process should be stopped because so many people were joining at the last minute. I don’t think that’s right. I think it’s a good thing that people are joining the party.”
Cooper denied that she had had any discussions with Mandelson about withdrawing from the race and said she was unaware of any conversations he had had with members of her team.
“Peter is not standing in this leadership election,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “What is important is the voices of the people who are standing in the leadership election right now.”
A campaign source has told the Guardian that people in Kendall’s camp tried to get both her and Cooper to withdraw and rally round Burnham. But Cooper refused and Kendall was not willing to drop out on her own. After a speech on Thursday, Cooper told the audience it would not have been right for the two women to give up, leaving a field of two men.
The controversy about those entitled to vote in the contest deepened as Ben Bradshaw, the Labour deputy leadership candidate and MP for Exeter, said his constituency party had found that 10% of new registered supporters had never voted for Labour before.
“In my own constituency, which is probably the best organised Labour party in the country, we have been through all of the new registered supporters and have cross referenced them with our voting records, which are the best in the country, and consistently 10% of the new registered supporters have always said they have been strongly against Labour. They’ve never voted Labour, they’ve always voted for another party,” he said.
“Now that is a potential problem for the party. The party has assured all of us – the leader and deputy leader candidates – that they have the systems in place to weed these people out and we’ll have to take those assurances at face value.”
On Sunday Gordon Brown became the latest senior Labour figure to warn against choosing Corbyn as the party’s next leader, suggesting that the MP for Islington North could damage international relations by allying with Hezbollah, Hamas, Venezuela and Russia. The former prime minister did not refer to any of the candidates by name, but his 50-minute speech included thinly veiled warnings over Corbyn.
On Monday, Burnham will reach out to Corbyn and his supporters in an appeal for party unity as the leadership election threatens to tear Labour apart.
The shadow health secretary will say it would be “unforgivable” if infighting after the result is announced on 12 September prevented Labour from standing up to the Tories. The appeal, in a speech in Manchester, follows Brown’s passionate call for Labour not to become a “party of protest” instead of a credible electoral force.
The former prime minister told party members and invited journalists at the Royal Festival Hall in London that Labour must be “credible, radical, sustainable and electable to help people out of poverty” and that anger was not enough. In a clear reference to Corbyn, he said there was one camp whose own supporters did not even believe their candidate would win the next election.
Brown said he was heartbroken and that the party was grieving after the general election defeat in May, but that it would be “even worse if we leave ourselves powerless to do anything about it”.
In the most explicit warning so far about Corbyn’s foreign policy, he said: “Don’t tell me that we can do much for the poor of the world if the alliances we favour most are with Hezbollah, Hamas, Chávez’s successor in Venezuela and Putin’s totalitarian Russia.” Corbyn has been criticised for describing representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah as friends, which he has said was a collective term rather than a sign that he agrees with their views. Corbyn has also hinted at being open to a closer relationship with Russia and wants to withdraw from Nato.
Brown staged his intervention after Corbyn became the surprise frontrunner in the contest with the backing of the two biggest trade unions, Unite and Unison. Until recently an obscure leftwing backbencher, Corbyn only managed to get on to the ballot after a number of Labour MPs lent him their nomination in order to encourage debate about the future of the party.
Brown’s speech follows interventions by Tony Blair, Alan Johnson, Jack Straw and Alastair Campbell who have warned that Corbyn would be electorally disastrous. None, however, has dented the leftwinger’s status as the favourite to win and pressure is now mounting on former leader Ed Miliband to make clear his views, given that they are more likely to be respected by the left of the party than those of politicians more closely associated with the Blair era.
Cooper’s team had been hoping to win the endorsement of Brown. Her husband, the former shadow chancellor Ed Balls, was one of his closest advisers, but the former prime minister chose not to back a single candidate.
As ballot papers start to arrive on the doormats of party members, Burnham and Cooper are now engaged in a bitter fight to position themselves as the candidate who can beat Corbyn on second preference votes. Both are refusing to stand aside despite pressure from MPs for anti-Corbyn sentiment to converge behind a single candidate.
Responding to Brown’s speech, a spokesman from Corbyn’s campaign said it “highlighted the need for a Labour party that stands for hope, that is credible, radical and electable – on which basis, the best candidate to vote for is Jeremy Corbyn”.
He added: “It is necessary to be credible, but credibility cannot mean an orthodoxy of austerity that chokes off recovery. Instead we need a Labour party that stands for growth, investment and innovation across the whole country.
“Jeremy Corbyn’s clear plans for growth-led recovery rather than austerity mark him out as the candidate offering hope and drawing in thousands of new people in the process. Polls vary, but most have shown that Jeremy Corbyn is the candidate most likely to engage with voters beyond Labour’s existing supporters.”
Brown’s decision to break his silence on the contest drew a divided reaction from his party. Clive Lewis, a new Labour MP and Corbyn supporter, tweeted that Brown was not qualified to lecture on economic credibility.
This in turn drew fire from other Labour MPs, with the shadow Treasury minister, Alison McGovern, replying: “I’m a ‘play the ball, not the person’ sort. But this is a joke. [Gordon Brown] helped millions to better life. And this guy? Not.”
The other three leadership candidates initially held back from criticising Corbyn over fears that they might be seen as ganging up on the outsider, but they have now all suggested that he risks creating turmoil in the party.
In an interview with the Sunday People, Burnham claimed that electing Corbyn would drag Labour back to the infighting of the 1980s. “I’m the only person in this race who can beat Jeremy,” he said. “In the 80s, we started fighting each other and left the way clear for Margaret Thatcher to bulldoze her way through Labour communities. I’m not going to let that happen this time.”
After a week of intense attacks from senior Labour figures about his credibility as a leader, Corbyn sought to calm fears that he would have an anti-business agenda by setting out plans to support entrepreneurs and small traders. He told the Observer: “The current government seems to think ‘pro-business’ means giving a green light to corporate tax avoiders and private monopolies. I will stand up for small businesses, independent entrepreneurs and the growing number of enterprises that want to cooperate and innovate for the public good.”
Corbyn has dismissed criticism of his suitability as a leader by saying that he does not do personal attacks or respond to abuse.
Writing in his column in the Daily Telegraph, the London mayor, Boris Johnson, expressed his glee at Corbyn’s success in the leadership race. “If all these forecasts are right – the polls, the betting markets, the pundits – then that fearsome New Labour machine is in the process of some kind of violent, unexpected and hilarious disintegration,” he wrote.
“It really looks as though it might be the end for the ruthless beast that won three election victories and struck terror for so long into Tory hearts.”
This article was written by Frances Perraudin, Rowena Mason and Josh Halliday, for theguardian.com on Monday 17th August 2015 11.59 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010