Labour is failing to provide a “powerful, credible opposition” to the Conservative government under Jeremy Corbyn, leadership challenger Owen Smith has claimed as the two men clashed in the first head-to-head debate of the campaign.
Mr Corbyn hit back, blaming Mr Smith and others for undermining party unity when they quit the shadow cabinet in protest at his leadership.
The challenger was booed and heckled by Corbyn supporters at the televised debate in Cardiff as he denied being part of a “coup” to oust the veteran left-winger.
But he accused Mr Corbyn of “sloganising” rather than developing effective policies and said that Labour would only have a chance of winning if it changed leader.
Speaking in relation to the Conservatives, Mr Smith said. “They are riding roughshod over us.”
Addressing Mr Smith, Mr Corbyn said: “What I don’t understand is how you can complain about disunity in the party when you and others are the ones who resigned from the shadow cabinet at the very point when we could have taken it to them.”
The two contenders traded promises to fight austerity, boost employment and offer protection to workers. Mr Corbyn accused Mr Smith of offering a programme made up of proposals already adopted by his team, but the challenger insisted he had heard little in the way of policy from the leader during his time in the shadow cabinet.
The pair clashed as Mr Smith acknowledged that “we agree about so much of this stuff”, with Mr Corbyn swiftly retorting: “So why did you resign?”
Mr Corbyn accused some Labour rebels of “silly childish behaviour”, but insisted that only “a very small number” of MPs were involved. He pledged that he would appoint a “broad” shadow cabinet and urged every Labour MP to work with him if he is re-elected on 24 September.
There were clear divisions over Labour’s approach to Brexit, with Mr Smith leaving little doubt that he blames Mr Corbyn for his lacklustre campaigning in the EU referendum.
Mr Corbyn insisted: “We spent a lot of money on it, we did a lot of campaigning. I travelled the whole country doing a very large number of meetings.”
He dodged Mr Smith’s challenges to join him in demanding a second referendum on any Brexit deal, saying only that it was likely to be an issue in the general election.
Mr Corbyn said that “the result is what the result is”, adding: “We have to make the best of it”.
Mr Smith retorted: “I think we have got to do more than that. I think we have got to fight to stay in.”