New Labour leadership was elitist, says Burnham

Andy Burnham attacked New Labour's "elitist" style of leadership yesterday as he attempted to win last-minute support and keep alive his bid to become the party's next leader.

During the first major hustings event for the candidates vying to succeed Gordon Brown, Mr Burnham went further than before in distancing himself from the "top-down" approach of Tony Blair and Mr Brown.

In a symbolic break with the New Labour years, both Mr Burnham and Ed Miliband suggested they would not have Lord Mandelson in their shadow cabinets. Mr Burnham said the power wielded by the peer "created the impression that the elite was running the country".

The former health secretary has yet to reach the 33 nominations from MPs needed to earn a place on the ballot paper. He has until tomorrow to find enough backers.

Speaking at the hustings hosted by the GMB union, he tried to persuade those who were undecided by promising to create a "Labour Party that involves everyone".

Leading candidates were also confronted with criticisms that they had little experience outside Westminster and were too similar to each other to offer a real choice. Mr Burnham, Ed Balls and David and Ed Miliband are all former special advisers with degrees from Oxford. John McDonnell, one of two left-wing figures in the race, earned loud applause from union members but scorn from the Tories after saying that he would like to go back in time to "assassinate" Margaret Thatcher. He later clarified that his comments were meant as a joke.

He had made the remark after being asked what single act would have best improved life in 1980s Britain. His reply was: "I was on the GLC that Mrs Thatcher abolished. I worked for the National Union of Mineworkers and we had the NUM strike. I think I'd assassinate Thatcher."

Mr Burnham signalled the end of Lord Mandelson's place at the heart of Labour should he win the leadership. "Peter did some great things," he said. "But we created the impression that the elite was running the country. We must have a Labour Party that involves everyone."

Ed Miliband, who is aiming to pick up many votes from union members with a pitch to the left of his brother, also said there would be no place for Lord Mandelson in his shadow Cabinet. While he said the peer had fought "like a tiger" to keep Labour in office, he added that members of his shadow team should be elected. "I think all of us believe in dignity in retirement," he said.

It was left to David Miliband to defend New Labour's achievements, telling the packed hall the party had to pick someone who was ready to be Prime Minister. "There are plenty of people who want to trash our record. We should not fall for the Tory claptrap that we left Britain broke and broken," he said.

Ed Balls was the only candidate who did not attend the event as he was due to appear in the Commons in his role as the shadow Education Secretary. Mr Balls, who has already earned sufficient nominations to appear on the leadership ballot paper, will address the GMB union conference today.

Diane Abbott, the only woman in the race, is struggling to raise enough support before Wednesday's deadline. She said she hoped her candidacy would make it easier for outsiders to run in the future. "My idea has always been 'go for it' and even if you don't get there, you will have made it easier for other people like you to come afterwards," she said.

Hustings performance

David Miliband (63 nominations)

Told a union audience he refused to back nationalisation, showing he is not prepared to abandon New Labour's past. Performance rating: 3/5

Ed Miliband (49 nominations)

Admitted Labour had been slow to come up with an industrial policy and continued to pitch to the left of his brother. Performance rating: 3/5

Ed Balls (33 nominations)

Not at the hustings and has upset some by talking tough on immigration. Performance rating: N/A

Andy Burnham (23 nominations)

Left an impression by promising to change "elitist" party structure and freeze out Lord Mandelson. Performance rating: 4/5

John McDonnell (10 nominations)

Will be remembered for his quip about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, but the comment will not help his credibility. Performance rating: 1/5

Diane Abbott (8 nominations)

Her "zero privatisation" message went down well, but failed to get 33 nominations. Performance rating: 2/5