Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of “bottling” the first head-to-head hustings with Owen Smith after it emerged that he has rejected a Channel 4 News debate organised by the Labour party that was due to be held on Monday evening.
Labour party officials asked the two candidates last Tuesday to keep the date free for the debate but the Corbyn campaign informed Channel 4 News on Thursday that he would not be attending.
It is understood that the campaigns had been aware since 22 July that a Channel 4 News debate was going to be organised for this week by Labour party officials, although that is contested by the Corbyn camp.
A source close to the Labour leader said that, while Corbyn would attend all the official events organised by Labour’s governing body, the NEC, they would not be dictated to by Labour party HQ on attending hustings being set up by media organisations.
“The exact role of the Labour party organisation in how they have played it since the coup has been a controversial one,” the source said. “Jeremy will do some media hustings but that has to be in agreement with Jeremy’s campaign team. The Labour party can facilitate but not dictate.”
The source added that Corbyn was in Liverpool on Monday night but that he also had the right to turn down hustings if he felt that the media organisation sponsoring it was hostile to his leadership.
Karl Turner, the MP for Kingston on Hull East – who recently resigned as shadow attorney general, said the Labour leader should respect the rights of members to see him debate his challenger.
He said: “He’s good to speak to a crowd of people – well done Jeremy – but what people need to see in the Labour party are hustings involving the two candidates.
“It needs to be a fair contest and members need to see the two candidates and currently Jeremy is bottling it.”
Smith told the Observer that he was willing to debate Corbyn “any time, anywhere”.
He said: “Televised debates are a crucial part of that process as they give members across the country a fair chance to compare the visions and candidates on offer.
“I will debate with Jeremy, any time, anywhere. But it takes two to tango. It would be a tragedy for members and the labour movement if they were not given the chance to see how the two candidates compare.
“I’m confident that my ideas for replacing failed Tory austerity with a Labour plan for investment and prosperity will appeal to members. I’m eager to make that case to everyone in the labour movement, so I hope Jeremy agrees to more hustings as soon as possible.”
A spokesman for Channel 4 News said that Smith had confirmed that he was willing to attend the hustings on Monday night or later this week but that they were still in talks with those acting for the Labour leader.
The Labour party website lists upcoming hustings as being in Cardiff on Thursday; Nottinghamshire on Wednesday at an event hosted by the BBC; Birmingham on 18 August; Glasgow on 25 August; and an event organised by the Guardian on 1 September in London. In addition, the Labour party has also proposed events with ITV in August and Sky in September. However, the Corbyn campaign has yet to agree to a number of those events.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, Corbyn warned rebel MPs they will never be able to take the Labour party’s name if they force a split.
Responding to reports in the Daily Telegraph that dissenting MPs are preparing to elect their own leader and launch a legal challenge for the party’s name and assets if Smith fails to win the battle for the leadership, Corbyn branded the situation “bizarre”.
He said: “We are getting into some fairly bizarre territory here where unnamed MPs, funded from unnamed sources, are apparently trying to challenge – via the Daily Telegraph, very interesting – the very existence of this party.
“I say to them: ‘think on, and think again’. This party was founded by brave people, pioneers who achieved a great deal, and this party has a huge membership and under the Registration of Parties Act we are the Labour party.
“There’s no alternative, there’s no other party, we are the Labour party, and I’m very proud to be the leader of the Labour party.”
Corbyn denied his leadership could trigger a split, adding: “Sorry, this is nonsense, whoever is saying my leadership is leading to a break-up of the party? Since I became leader membership has doubled, activity has increased.”
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell urged Smith to condemn “the minority of MPs supporting his campaign who are threatening to subvert the outcome of this election and cause enormous damage to the Labour party”. Smith responded by saying he would not “indulge in gossip”.
This article was written by Daniel Boffey Policy editor, for theguardian.com on Saturday 30th July 2016 18.39 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010