Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper trade blows as leadership contest intensifies

Boxing Gloves

Andy Burnham’s campaign chief has accused Labour leadership rival Yvette Cooper of clinging on in the contest “out of pride” as the two candidates fought publicly over who was best placed to defeat frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn.

Michael Dugher, who is also the shadow transport secretary, added that Cooper’s team should stop talking up the possibility of her becoming leader, arguing that “the Yvette campaign remains in complete denial as to the fact that they cannot possibly win”.

Dugher’s aggressive intervention prompted an immediate counter-attack from Cooper’s team, with a spokesman for the shadow home secretary accusing Burnham’s campaign of “old-style bullying from the boys” and saying it was he who “needs to step back and leave it to Yvette” if he is not prepared to offer an alternative to Corbyn.

In a further escalation of the conflict, a senior source in the Burnham camp also accused Cooper of using tactics “out of the Ed Balls playbook” - in a reference to her husband. One of Cooper’s backers Seema Malhotra told the rival team to stop “resorting to sexist lines”.

The public row comes as Cooper and Burnham fight to show that they are each able to scoop up sufficient second preference votes to prevent veteran leftwinger Corbyn from succeeding Ed Miliband, on the day that Labour members and supporters started to receive their ballot papers.

Dugher, who backed Cooper’s husband, Ed Balls, for leader in 2010, told the Guardian: “The stakes are desperately high with the future electability of the Labour party now in mortal danger. History will not be kind to those who appear to cling on out of pride when the situation really is quite hopeless. It’s time now to rally behind the only person in this contest who can beat Jeremy Corbyn and that is very clearly Andy Burnham.”

A string of warnings that a Corbyn victory could split the party or turn it into a mere pressure group have emerged in recent days from former Labour politicians including Tony Blair, Neil Kinnock, Jack Straw, Gordon Brown, and – mostly recently – David Miliband.

Lord Kinnock told BBC2’s Newsnight: “I can see why people are angry and want to protest. But then they have got to make a decision whether they want to be part of a Labour movement which produced a political party to seriously contest democratic power or they want to be in perpetual demonstration, which is fulfilling and noble but ultimately rarely effective.”

However, neither Burnham nor Cooper have been able to definitively emerge as Corbyn’s main challenger. It is understood that Cooper rejected pressure from senior Labour figures last week for both her and Liz Kendall to drop out and leave the way clear for Burnham to contest Corbyn alone. There are also reports that Lord Mandelson was involved in an aborted plan to try to get all three to withdraw and halt the contest.

Cooper’s team reacted with surprise and anger at suggestions from the Burnham camp that she should tone down her campaign, saying their data shows quite clearly that she is picking up around 60% of Burnham’s second preference votes and 90% of those from Kendall supporters. They also claimed Burnham is trailing in fourth place in London and the south-east, and is behind Cooper in “almost every region of the country”.

Liam Byrne, a key Cooper supporter and shadow universities minister, accused the Burnham camp of being “rattled and desperate”.

“That has put a lot of people’s backs up,” Byrne told the Guardian. “Andy’s team telling the girls to get out of the race is not going to do [him] any favours. We’ve been quite surprised about the virulence with which they have reacted to some of our facts. Our sense is that they are in last-throw-of-the-dice territory.”

A spokeswoman for Cooper said it was “desperate stuff” from Burnham.

She went on: “Labour’s chances of winning the next election are at stake here, with serious consequences for all those who depend on a Labour government. Andy needs to show some leadership and be clear whether he opposes Jeremy or not.

“Our figures show he will drop out in the second round because his campaign is failing to provide an effective alternative to Jeremy and he is losing first preferences as a consequence. If he isn’t prepared to offer an alternative to Jeremy, he needs to step back and leave it to Yvette. And he should do the right thing by the party and tell people who do still support him to put second preferences for Yvette – something he is still refusing to do.”

She added that the suggestions Cooper should tone down her campaign “shows old-style bullying from the boys”.

Responding to that, senior Labour MP Lucy Powell, the former campaign chief for Ed Miliband who is now backing Burnham, said: “This contest is way beyond gender politics. We are in a fight for the future of our party and country. Only Andy can beat Jeremy, and to suggest otherwise is frankly misleading.

With Burnham and Cooper at an impasse, a Kendall campaign source said their data suggests Cooper “doesn’t have the numbers to beat Jeremy”.

An MP involved in the Corbyn team told the Guardian he said it was now a two-horse race between the frontrunner and Burnham, and that it would be much tighter than people are currently assuming.

However, Cooper’s campaign responded by saying Corbyn had an interest in trying to build up Burnham as his main rival and claiming the other teams’ data was out of date.

Amid the rows between other candidates, Corbyn will today unveil his plans to bring the railways back into public ownership. He would introduce a railways act in 2020, as one of the first moves of a Corbyn government and run them in the public interest in line with social, economic and environmental goals.

Corbyn, who held a campaign event in Ealing on Sunday night, promised to involve Burnham in his team from day one – if he was willing. He made the comment after Burnham gave a speech in Manchester claiming there was “a good deal of common ground” between him and the leadership frontrunner.

Complimenting Corbyn on bringing “real energy” to the leadership race, Burnham said the two men shared key policies on housing and rail nationalisation but insisted: “I’m the only candidate who can unite our party.”

Burnham’s overtures to Corbyn supporters were criticised by Byrne. “The fact he has said he would give Jeremy a senior job … It means that Andy’s argument about uniting the party is shot to pieces.

“There’s a whole section of the party that says: ‘What are you talking about? There’s no way am I sitting in cabinet with Jeremy Corbyn. What would we do when the Trident vote comes up, and air strikes in Syria? The shadow cabinet would be in disarray.’ The argument has definitely got clearer and people definitely respect the fact Yvette is prepared to challenge him rather than copy him.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Rowena Mason and Helen Pidd, for The Guardian on Monday 17th August 2015 20.40 Europe/London

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