LABOUR’S leadership contenders were squarely told to stop swallowing Tory lies yesterday in their first face-off with working-class Brits.
At a hustings at GMB Congress in Dublin, frontrunners Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper faced audience heckles when they refused to say whether they favoured lowering the benefit cap to £23,000 a year.
The brouhaha came as nominations officially opened for the leadership — and leftwingers warned that the contest would fail to represent the debate in the party if Jeremy Corbyn was kept off the ballot paper.
Shadow international development secretary Mary Creagh and junior frontbencher Liz Kendall are also seeking to lead the party.
Having flown out to Dublin, the line-up was grilled on anti-union laws and Labour’s loss of support in Scotland.
North-west Ireland delegate Kevin Flanagan asked: “Were you in the toilet when the last manifesto was agreed?”
And Birmingham librarian Hannah Roche asked whether they would oppose the hated Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which will help private firms snap up public services.
Mr Corbyn was the only one to say he would oppose the deal outright.
“If there are trade agreements, they should be based on human rights, equality, working conditions, and justice,” he said to cheers from delegates.
Ms Creagh, Ms Kendall and Ms Cooper all said they favoured reforming the deal but that they were committed to remaining part of it.
But there were signs Mr Corbyn’s presence and the audience had some effect on Mr Burnham, who said: “The party needs to take a step back from saying we accept the whole thing.”
To boos and hisses from the audience, Ms Creagh and Ms Kendall announced that they would back the Tory benefit cap.
But delegates reserved their biggest jeers for Mr Burnham and Ms Cooper, who attempted to dodge the question.
Asked what the candidates would do to support trade unions, Ms Kendall said: “In terms of changing the legislation the honest answer is I don’t know — what do you think?”
In a rebuke to Mr Burnham, who has said he would not accept union donations, Ms Creagh said she would be “happy, honoured and proud” to accept members’ cash.
Mr Corbyn said unions could “deliver a fairer, better and more decent world” and called for an end to employment tribunal fees and for schoolchildren to be educated on the role of unions.
He was also the only candidate to suggest that a Labour led by him would consider campaigning against EU membership.
He said he favoured an EU based on “the harmonisation of working conditions across Europe” but would advocate a No vote if the settlement on offer was wholly based on “free-market positioning across Europe.”
Support from newly elected MPs Cat Smith and Kate Osamor put Mr Corbyn’s nominations at 14 last night, meaning he is still 21 short of the number he needs to make the ballot paper.
His supporters have been lobbying their MPs to nominate him to widen the debate even if they are supporting someone else in the contest.
In an open letter to north-east MPs Ian Lavery, Dave Anderson and Ian Mearns, who have nominated Andy Burnham, Durham Labour member Ben Sellers writes: “I can think of no greater gift to those who say ‘they’re all the same’ than a lengthy and anodyne leadership election which splits hairs about aspiration, immigration, the deficit and welfare, without ever offering a real alternative.”