Labour leadership contest: Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall will find leading party too 'challenging' says Burnham backer Lord Falconer

Lord Falconer says neither of the two female candidates in leadership contest can 'steer the Labour party through the challenging few years ahead'

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Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall would find leading the Labour party too challenging, one of the party’s shadow Cabinet ministers has suggested.

Lord Falconer, the shadow Justice Secretary, said he was backing Andy Burnham in the Labour leadership contest because he was the only candidate who could avoid a “damaging split” in the party.

He described Jeremy Corbyn’s  as a “decent and principled man” but dismissed his arguments as belonging to a by-gone era. However he predicted that the two female candidates in the race were “unlikely” to beat him in the contest and suggested they should unite behind Mr Burnham instead.

Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper are both very talented politicians,” Lord Falconer wrote in The Times.  “Both have a big future in our party. But neither Yvette nor Liz can steer the Labour party through the challenging few years ahead of us when we need a leader who can reach out to all wings of our party and provide unity. As a result, both Liz and Yvette are unlikely to beat Jeremy.

“It would be a tragedy if the outcome of this Leadership election was a deep fracture in the Labour movement of the kind which Tony, Gordon and then Ed all managed to avoid,” he added.

Lord Falconer, who shared a flat with Tony Blair and served in his and Gordon Brown's cabinets, claimed Mr Burnham was the only candidate who could build a “bold new radical programme for Labour” that could win back voters in Scotland, England and Wales and the only potential leader who could appeal to people who voted for the Tories, the SNP or Ukip in 2015.

A spokesperson for Mr Burnham's campaign insisted the issue of gender was "categorically not what the piece is about".

“It is not about gender; it is misleading to suggest that there is any element of sexism in it from the Burnham campaign; it’s simply about the best candidate, which is Andy, which is what the piece argues and which the Ipsos Mori poll showed," the spokesperson said.

Each of the three mainstream candidates in the leadership contest are working out how to counter the urge in support for Mr Corbyn, who started as the rank outsider.

The first poll of Labour members this week showed Mr Corbyn on 43 per cent and Mr Burnham on 26 per cent, with Ms Cooper on 20 per cent and Liz Kendall on 11 per cent.

It led to calls for Ms Kendall to drop out of the race and throw her support behind one of the other mainstream candidates to ensure one of them secures enough votes to beat Mr Corbyn, the veteran left-winger. However she rejected the calls and insisted she would "never stop fighting for what you believe in".

Ms Cooper's allies are privately worried that Mr Corbyn's surprise lead in the contest could benefit Mr Burnham. “If people draw back from backing Corbyn, they will see Andy as the next best thing,” one Labour MP said.

To prevent Mr Burnham from emerging as the "stop Jeremy Corbyn candidate," Ms Cooper has launched a campaign against the Government's welfare cuts, despite toeing the party line to abstain on George Osborne's welfare reforms earlier this week.

Mr Burnham faced a fierce backlash from his own supporters when he performed an immediate U-turn after abstaining on the same bill.

He wrote on his Facebook that Labour "simply cannot abstain" in its opposition to the Government's welfare reforms - just minutes after abstaining in a vote on those very measures in the Welfare Reform and Work Bill.