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Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in a last-minute plea

Exclusive: Mr Burnham insists he is the only other candidate who can win

Andrew Grice
Thursday 03 September 2015 00:00 BST

Andy Burnham has issued a last-minute plea to Labour members and supporters tempted to vote for Jeremy Corbyn to think again, warning that electing the left-winger would put the Conservatives in power for 20 years.

In an interview with The Independent, Mr Burnham admitted Mr Corbyn is ahead in the Labour race but estimated that 40 per cent of the 550,000-strong electorate are still to vote. He urged them to pull back from the brink of installing the veteran left-wing backbencher.

The shadow Health Secretary insisted he had got the message from those people attracted by Mr Corbyn. Offering them the best of both worlds, he said: “People are fed up with the politics we have had in recent times. I can offer change. The question is: what kind of change? But it is change that unifies the party and change that will win [the general election] in 2020.”

Mr Burnham, the front-runner until “Corbynmania” broke out, insisted he is the only candidate who can defeat Mr Corbyn. The Burnham camp has found that one in five Labour members and supporters previously committed to Mr Corbyn is now undecided. Its data shows Mr Burnham in second place with more than 30 per cent of first preference votes. The figures have been dismissed by Yvette Cooper’s team, which says she is at least five percentage points ahead of Mr Burnham and that he is doing badly in London, where 22 per cent of eligible voters live.

“The choice is stark now,” Mr Burnham said. “I think people attracted by what Jeremy has said have held back, worried by what it would mean and whether it would work.”

Warning about a Corbyn victory, he said: “The danger is that we talk more and more to ourselves and lose touch with the public. If we do that, we will end up with two decades of the Tories.” He added: “We will not get anywhere at an election if we can’t tell the public how we will pay for the things we are promising.”

Mr Burnham praised Mr Corbyn for bringing “energy” to the contest, saying the party is now having a delayed reckoning with the Blair era it was too “shell-shocked” to have after its 2010 election defeat.

Unlike Ms Cooper and Liz Kendall, the fourth candidate, Mr Burnham might serve in a Corbyn Shadow Cabinet. “I would be concerned about the party’s cohesion. I would do what I could to hold things together,” he said. But he warned it would be “very difficult” to serve if Mr Corbyn stuck to his plans to withdraw from Nato and scrap the Trident nuclear weapons system or campaigned for Britain to leave the EU.

As a serial Commons rebel who has voted against the party line 500 times, Mr Corbyn would struggle to impose discipline on Labour MPs, Mr Burnham warned. “His chief whip would find they were in the toughest job in politics. It would be a thankless task,” he said.

Rejecting claims that he is cosying up to the hot favourite, Mr Burnham insisted he has not joined Ms Cooper and Ms Kendall in attacking Mr Corbyn because the party must unite after the result is declared on 12 September.

He conceded that Labour’s turmoil over the Government’s Welfare Bill was a “turning point” which may cost him the leadership. Mr Burnham urged the Shadow Cabinet to oppose it but Harriet Harman, Labour’s acting leader, wanted to abstain. Mr Burnham lost ground to Mr Corbyn, who led a backbench rebellion against the Bill, by sticking to the Shadow Cabinet line and abstaining. “If I had resigned, I might have won the contest there and then,” he said. “But it would not have been me. I would have won it under false pretences.”

Mr Burnham denied the charge of “flip-flopping,” insisting he toughened Labour’s opposition to the Bill. Ms Harman’s argument that Labour would be seen as “the party of welfare” if it opposed the measure was “the wrong test,” Mr Burnham said, and was symptomatic of New Labour’s “timidity” and obsession with presentation.

Admitting to “some common ground” with Mr Corbyn, he shares many of the criticisms of Labour by those rallying behind the left-winger. “People may not realise how disillusioned I have become about modern politics,” he said. “The party lost its sense of identity. It became detached from people. I do understand why it [Corbynmania] is happening. It is this feeling of desperation and real frustration at the way the party has gone about its politics and a real yearning for change.

“We have got into a bad habit of dancing to the Tory tune too much on issues like social security and education. We have gone along with too much of the Tory agenda. The party has bought the mantra that the market is answer to everything.”

Pledging to provide an answer for Labour activists greeted on the doorstep with “you’re all the same,” he said: “People do not know what we are for any more. My view is that the public will respect us more if we stand for something and make an argument for it.”

Mr Burnham said many grassroots members regard Labour as “too London-centric, too close to elites.” The Everton fan plays up his Liverpool roots – even though critics point out that he went to Cambridge University before moving to “the Westminster bubble” as a special adviser, then becoming an MP and Cabinet minister. He said: “The difference [with the other candidates] is that I represent the area I grew up in” – Leigh in Greater Manchester. “I have been true to myself. I have never really taken the Westminster perspective.”

Even if Mr Corbyn wins and is forced out before the 2020 election, Mr Burnham, who also stood in 2010, would not run for the leadership again. “There are only so many times you can do it. This is the last time. I believe I am the person who can put Labour back on the right path. If my moment is to come, it is now.”

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