British Labour Party leader candidates make case in Dublin
Contenders to succeed Ed Miliband go before GMB union at Citywest
British Labour Party MPs Jeremy Corbyn, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham, Mary Creagh and Liz Kendall at the GMB union’s annual conference at Citywest in Dublin. All five are runnning for leadership of the party. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
Five British Labour Party politicians sat on a stage in Dublin’s Citywest on Tuesday, seeking votes from 1,000 delegates of a major British trade union. Outside, Irish Labour Party leader Joan Burton greeted old friends.
The British Labour hustings – involving Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh and Jeremy Corbyn – formed the centre-piece of the GMB’s third day in Ireland, only its second congress here in 130 years.
Beforehand, most of the delegates wanted only to talk about the address given on Monday by President Michael D Higgins – one that prompted three standing ovations.
The “voice” of the unions is needed as the world rebuilds from “the great failure of speculative capital and a dominant model of economics that has caused so much damage to the lives of workers and their families”, Mr Higgins had told them.
Prompting loud applause, delegate Kevin Flanagan told the conference: “We were deeply inspired by the President of Ireland, who unequivocally stood up for the rights of workers and the right of trade unionists.”
Get out the voteThe Labour hustings were significant: the GMB hopes that at least 100,000 of its members will be able to vote in September’s election if they sign up beforehand as affiliated Labour members.
The sympathies of the room were obvious: unrepentant longtime left-winger Jeremy Corbyn was their favourite, even though he has secured just eight of the 35 nominations he needs from MPs to stay in the race after Monday.
Former health secretary Andy Burnham, who has adopted more and more left-wing tones since the campaign began, was second in affections, particularly after he expressed doubts about backing a proposed EU-US trade deal.
Illustrating the shift taking place deep within Labour, Burnham said: “Far too many GMB members either didn’t vote or voted Ukip. That is not your fault, it is our fault.”
During the election, a union member told him he was voting Ukip,” he said. “Each day, he said that he sits on his own at a tea-break because ‘nobody else on my shift speaks English’.”
However, the Liverpool- born Burnham did not do quite so well when he was asked by the hustings chair, the Mirror’s political editor Kevin Maguire, how much a litre of petrol costs.
“Is it £1.60? I never know because I fill the tank,” said Burnham, who minutes before had told union delegates that Labour lost because they were seen by too many as “the Westminster elite”. (The correct answer is about £1.16.)
Blairite wingThe antipathy in the room towards Leicester MP Liz Kendall was palpable, since she is seen by the union as representative of the Blairite wing of the party.
Kendall’s claim has not been helped by the fact that she is the choice of Peter Mandelson – one of “the political has-beens” now trying to decide the leadership, said GMB general secretary Paul Kenny.
A union leaflet carrying a mildly sinister photograph of Mandelson made the feelings plain: “You can let [him] decide who it is, or you can decide your right to vote for Labour’s next leader.”
Kendall puts forward an unpalatable argument for some: “The truth is, people didn’t trust us on the economy or with their taxes. Too many people think we don’t share their values of hard work, responsibility.”
However, Kendall did well on the “ordinary lives” question, easily remembering the cost of the BBC TV licence – down to getting the monthly direct debit correct nearly to the last penny.
Urging Labour to examine why it failed so badly in May, Yvette Cooper declared: “As a member of the GMB, it is great to be here, but none of us wanted to be here because we had wanted to win.”
Cap welfareQuestioned about the Conservatives’ plans to cap welfare benefits at £23,000 a year, all of the candidates (bar Corbyn, who will not win) struggled to chime with the mood of delegates.
Refusing to give a straight yes or no answer, Burnham said the question was “a little unfair” before saying, when pressed: “In principle, it is not right that people should get more in benefits than many in my constituency earn.”
Kendall crisply said that she did support the cap, with qualifications. “That is more than many of my constituents get in wages,” she said to loud murmurs of disapproval, “You don’t like the answer, but that is my view.”