UK Politics

Labour leadership contenders clash over spending cuts

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Media captionAndy Burnham and Ed Balls clash over spending cuts

Labour's leadership contenders have clashed over spending cuts and what the party needs to do to regain power.

In a special edition of BBC One's Question Time, Andy Burnham said Labour should be "honest" and admit there would have been "significant" cuts if it had stayed in government.

But Ed Balls said cuts would not create jobs and Labour should not "do the job" of the coalition for them.

David Miliband, Ed Miliband and Diane Abbott also took part in the debate.

The four-month leadership contest is in its final stages, with the result due to be announced at the Labour Party conference on 25 September.

Labour MPs, MEPs, party members and members of affiliated organisations, including trade unions, have been casting their ballots since early September.

Asked what direction Labour needed to go in in order to regain power, David Miliband said he was best placed to "occupy the centre ground" and defeat the coalition at the next general election, urging Labour to "learn the lessons" of the past.

Deficit stance

Ed Miliband dismissed claims he would take the party to the left as "nonsense" but said the party had taken working-class voters for granted and would not win again without "profound change".

Diane Abbott said Labour had lost million of voters because of policies like tuition fees and scrapping the 10p tax band and she wanted to bring the party closer to ordinary people.

Image caption The Labour contenders are nearing the finishing line

On the critical question of how best to support growth while reducing the deficit, Mr Burnham said Labour needed to be seen to be credible if it wanted to be listened to and "not oppose every cut".

While he agreed the coalition was moving too fast, he said Labour had agreed to protect spending only on front-line police, schools and health and should not pretend there would not have been cutbacks if it had stayed in power.

"Let's get some honesty in this debate," he said. "There would have been significant spending cuts under Labour and there would have been job losses under Labour."

But Mr Balls urged his colleagues "not to do the coalition's job for them".

"I think Labour would have been creating jobs this year. At a time when the economy is slowing down, we should be building houses, not cutting them, building schools, not cutting them."

Asked where he and his brother disagreed over economic policy, Ed Miliband said he wanted more emphasis on tax rises - including a higher levy on banks - to bring down the deficit than Labour was arguing for at the moment.

"The banks should be paying the price of the crisis, not people up and down this country," he said.

Iraq war

The candidates also clashed over their positions on the Iraq war, Diane Abbott saying it had been illegal and had proved a "turning point" in terms of public trust in Labour.

Mr Balls said Labour should apologise for having taken the UK to war on a false premise while Ed Miliband said the government had followed "the US script" too closely.

Had he known that Iraq had had no weapons of mass destruction, David Miliband said he would not have backed the war, saying it had taken a "terrible toll" in terms of loss of life and trust.

But Mr Burnham said he would not "back away" from his support for the war, adding he believed it had been justified on humanitarian grounds.

BBC political editor Nick Robinson said the programme had revealed the clear battle that was going on over the future direction of the party, with none of the candidates wanting to be labelled as the figure closest to either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown.