The Labour leadership challenger Owen Smith has been accused by Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign of talking up the threat of a split in the party and giving tacit support to plotters who want to see it divided.
John McDonnell, chair of the Jeremy for Labour campaign and shadow chancellor, said Smith must do more to denounce those seeking a split or risk becoming the “disunity candidate”.
He made the allegation after reports that some Labour MPs were considering a separate parliamentary grouping and launching a legal challenge to win control of the party name if Corbyn wins the leadership again, as he is expected to.
In his most pointed attack on Smith to date, McDonnell said the Labour challenger needed to be much clearer that this was not an option.
“Owen Smith refused when asked by the Guardian newspaper yesterday to condemn the minority of MPs supporting his campaign who are talking of splitting our party if he does not win,” he said.
“And then only later that day in a TV interview he talked up the threat of a split. If Owen truly wants to unite our party like Jeremy Corbyn does, then he needs to denounce those who are plotting to divide it.”
McDonnell criticised supporters of Smith, such as Saving Labour activists, for talking openly in support of a split, the Labour MP Jess Phillips for suggesting she could resign the whip, and Smith for “flip-flopping on whether he would respect the outcome of the election”.
The shadow chancellor said: “If he continues to refuse to denounce those calling for a split, then members will think he is simply trying to scaremonger them to vote for him by his talking up of threats from a minority of MPs supporting his campaign who are plotting to split our party in Tory newspapers, while at the same time refusing to denounce them.
“And it will be hard for anyone to tell how much Owen truly is opposed to a split, and how much he is giving tacit support to those plotters in a hope it helps his campaign.
“Owen Smith therefore needs to immediately distance himself from those people saying they want a split, which is causing huge damage to our party at this time. Anything short of this will make him the ‘disunity candidate’.”
Kate Green, the chair of Smith’s campaign, condemned McDonnell’s pleas. “The irony of John McDonnell offering hollow words on party unity will not be lost on Labour members and supporters,” she said.
“Since the devastating referendum result, Owen has worked tirelessly to unite the party, negotiating with Jeremy, with trade unions, and with people across the Labour movement in an effort to bring all parts of the party together. While John, who previously referred to the Labour party as just a ‘tactic’ , has remained relaxed about the prospect of the party splitting.
“This leadership election should be about the candidates debating their visions for the future of Labour and the country. John should reflect on Jeremy’s commitment not to descend into personal attacks and innuendo. Owen has a positive, radical and credible plan to end austerity and take the fight to the Tories. He will continue to make that case and not be sidetracked by internal arguments.”
But a Corbyn ally hit back, saying: “It’s not gone unnoticed that they’re clearly dodging the question. Why won’t Owen Smith’s campaign just simply condemn those who want to split our party? It’s very odd, what do they have to hide?”
On Saturday, Corbyn warned rebel MPs they would never be able to take the Labour party’s name if they forced a split.
Responding to the reports in the Daily Telegraph that dissenting MPs were preparing to elect their own leader and launch a legal challenge for the party’s name should Smith fail to win, Corbyn expressed bemusement at the situation.
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 [Political] 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.”
It is the second clash of the day between the two camps after Smith’s leadership campaign earlier accused Corbyn of reluctance to take part in live television debates.
Although the two candidates are expected to go head-to-head for the first time on Thursday, Green said she was seeking assurances that Corbyn intended to take part in media debates after he pulled out of an appearance on Channel 4 News, due to take place on Monday.
Smith’s campaign team is expecting Corbyn to attend three or four debates organised by the Labour party, but does not know whether he will agree to those organised by broadcasters.
An encounter between Corbyn and Smith is scheduled to take place in Cardiff on Thursday in front of an audience of party members. It will be moderated by Catrin Haf Jones of ITV Cymru Wales and appear on a live stream carried by the Labour website.
At least two and possibly three other events organised by the party are planned, but Smith is pushing for more to take place around the country.
A spokesman for Corbyn said: “Jeremy will definitely participate in broadcast debates, but it’s for the party to facilitate rather than dictate which ones the candidates take part in.”
Green wrote to Jon Lansman, the chairman of Momentum, the grassroots group of Corbyn backers, on Sunday to ask him to host a debate between the leader and his challenger.
“Given Jeremy’s apparent reluctance to engage in broadcast debates, I write to propose that Owen join Jeremy to debate their visions for the future of our movement at a Momentum-organised meeting (or series of meetings), in Islington, or anywhere in the country, as soon as possible,” she wrote.
She said Smith was “willing to debate Jeremy any time, anywhere, so that members can have every opportunity to see how the candidates compare”.
The Labour party website lists forthcoming hustings, in addition to Cardiff on Thursday, as 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. The 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.
Corbyn is considered the strong favourite to win the leadership contest without the need to win over any more members. In contrast, Smith is a lesser-known name and will be keen to raise his profile as much as possible.
However, in another controversy on Sunday, Smith’s campaign was forced to apologise for sending automated text messages to Labour members and supporters that arrived in the middle of the night by mistake, infuriating many recipients.
A campaign spokesman said: “There was a technical glitch with the system used for sending out messages, which meant some texts were delivered after the intended 8pm cut-off. We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.”
This article was written by Rowena Mason Deputy political editor, for theguardian.com on Sunday 31st July 2016 13.48 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010