Accusations from both sides turns Labour leadership race sour

Owen Smith has been accused of being the disunity candidate'. Picture: PA

Owen Smith has been accused of being the disunity candidate'. Picture: PA

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The Labour leadership race took a new twist yesterday, with challenger Owen Smith branded the “disunity candidate” and Jeremy Corbyn accused of ducking out of debates.

The campaign looks set to become further bogged down in rancour, with Mr Smith’s rivals calling on him to condemn claims the Labour Party could split if Mr Corbyn wins the leadership ballot.

Owen Smith needs to immediately distance himself from those people saying they want a split, which is causing huge damage to our party

John McDonnell

There were warnings that scores of MPs who backed a successful no-confidence motion in Mr Corbyn could choose their own leader in the House of Commons and set themselves up as a rival Opposition.

Mr Smith said last week that he feared a split within Labour along national lines, with parties in Scotland and Wales going it alone if Mr Corbyn survives the leadership vote.

Shadow chancellor John McDonnell yesterday accused Mr Smith of “flip-flopping” on a possible split and called on him to say he would respect the result of the ballot.

Mr McDonnell said: “If he continues to refuse to denounce those calling for a split, then members will think he is simply trying to scaremonger them to vote for him … And it’ll be hard for anyone to tell how much Owen truly is opposed to a split, and how much he is giving tacit support to those plotters in a hope it helps his campaign.

“Owen Smith therefore needs to immediately distance himself from those people saying they want a split, which is causing huge damage to our party at this time. Anything short of this will make him the ‘disunity candidate’.”

Mr Smith’s campaign hit back, pointing to comments made by Mr McDonnell in 2012 that Labour was not “some supreme body” and that “if it’s no longer a useful vehicle, move on”.

Responding to reports over the weekend of a plot by rebel MPs, Mr Corbyn said a breakaway group would be barred from using the Labour name.

The increasingly bitter war of words comes as one of the biggest trade unions prepare to decide who to support in the Labour leadership contest. The Communication Workers Union is today expected to back Mr Corbyn, having supported him in last year’s leadership election.

Meanwhile, there were reports yesterday that Scottish Labour members had rejected proposals for the party to become independent from London HQ. Plans to give the Labour Party in Scotland greater autonomy have already been agreed, including more control over local branches and Westminster candidate selection.

However, senior party sources were quoted as saying Scottish Labour could still opt to break away if Mr Corbyn wins the leadership challenge.

Scottish leader Kezia Dugdale has given her backing to disgruntled Labour MPs, and appointed the party’s only MP in Scotland, Ian Murray, as her Westminster spokesman after he resigned as shadow Scottish Secretary in protest at Mr Corbyn’s leadership.

Elsewhere, the Smith campaign accused the Labour leader of ducking out of debates after reports an event planned for today hosted by Channel 4 will not go ahead after Mr Corbyn declined to take part.

Kate Green MP, who is backing Mr Smith, wrote to Jon Lansman, chairman of the Momentum group of pro-Corbyn activists, asking for “an assurance that Jeremy does not intend to pull out of the remaining media debates that have been scheduled for the rest of the campaign”.

She wrote: “Labour members and supporters face a hugely important choice in this election, and it is right that they should have the chance to hear the two candidates debate their ideas.”

A handful of events have been planned by the Labour Party, including one in Glasgow on 25 August. However, it has not been confirmed whether both campaigns have agreed to take part.

In her letter, Ms Green said Mr Smith was willing to debate the Labour leader “any time, anywhere”.

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