Corbyn said that he would consider reversing Tony Blair’s decision 20 years ago to scrap Clause IV of the party’s constitution which committed it to “common ownership of the means of production”.
The backbench MP said Labour should not “shy away” from public ownership of parts of some industries just days before party members and registered supporters are due to receive their voting papers in the four-way leadership contest.
Corbyn, who is due to makes a series of campaign visits to Scotland this week, has emerged as the unexpected frontrunner after the left-winger narrowly made it onto the ballot paper for the contest – the winner of which will be announced on 12 September.
He suggested that he could consider bringing back the original Clause IV as part of a commitment to take back some “necessary things” into public ownership if he was to win the vote.
The highly-symbolic move to scrap Clause IV was widely seen as a key moment in Blair’s leadership and his remaking of the party as New Labour in a change that scrapped its commitment to public ownership and backed the market economy.
However, Corbyn, the MP for Islington North, said there was now growing public support for public ownership of utilities such as the UK’s privatised railway services.
He said: “I think we should talk about what the objectives of the party are, whether that’s restoring the Clause IV as it was originally written or it’s a different one, but I think we shouldn’t shy away from public participation, public investment in industry and public control of the railways.
“I’m interested in the idea that we have a more inclusive, clearer set of objectives. I would want us to have a set of objectives which does include public ownership of some necessary things such as rail.”
However, a spokesman from his campaign stated that Corbyn was not saying he wanted a return to “the old clause IV” and that he did not want “a big ‘moment’ such as that” after the backing for public ownership was attacked by leadership campaign rivals.
The spokesman confirmed that Corbyn would seek to open up a discussion about “public ownership objectives for the 21st century” – including the railways – if he won the contest.
“Jeremy is not saying he wants to return to Clause IV, nor does he want a big ‘moment’ such as that. He says we need some forms of discussion about public ownership objectives for the 21st century,” the spokesman said.
Labour leadership contest rivals shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper and shadow care minister Liz Kendall accused Corbyn of wanting to take the party backwards.
Cooper said: “The British economy needs new hi-tech entrepreneurs, innovation and growing business, not a return to the days of British Leyland. And Labour needs radical ideas for the future, not to turn the clock back. We’ve always been a progressive party that’s embraced the future – this is not the time to be reactionary and cling to the past. Otherwise we will fail to deliver the social justice and equality the Labour Party believes in and we won’t win the power to change peoples’ lives.
“The government’s role is to back the skills, science, research, infrastructure and childcare that employees, business and industry all need in the modern economy. I want Britain to double its investment in science to create two million more hi-tech manufacturing jobs. We should be working in partnership with business, not spending billions of pounds we haven’t got buying businesses out.”
Kendall – the leadership challenger seen as being the closest to Blair’s policies – fiercely condemned the idea as a throwback to the ideas of leftwingers like the late Tony Benn.
She said: “This shows there is nothing new about Jeremy Corbyn’s politics. It is just Bennism reheated, a throwback to the past, not the change we need for our party or our country. Life had moved on from the old Clause IV in 1994 let alone 2015. We are a party of the future, not a preservation society.”
The campaign team for shadow health secretary Andy Burnham declined to comment on Corbyn’s suggestion that Labour could readopt Clause IV, which was originally drafted in 1918 during the party’s early years of existence.
However, Burnham warned that some new recruits attracted by the radical policies of Corbyn “don’t have the party’s best interests at heart”.
The shadow health secretary became the latest senior figure to voice concern that so-called “entryists” from the hard left were seeking to infiltrate the party in order to vote for Mr Corbyn.
It is thought that around 190,000 of the 390,000 people who are eligible to vote in the leadership election have signed up since the party’s General Election defeat in May.
They include affiliated supporters who – under new rules adopted under Mr Miliband – have to pay just £3 to take part as well as individual members of trade unions and other organisations which are affiliated to the party.
Burnham acknowledged that many had been drawn by the excitement generated by Corbyn’s leadership bid.
He said: “I don’t doubt for a second there are lots of enthusiastic people who have joined who want something bigger from politics who are drawn to what Jeremy is saying.
“But there are others underneath who don’t have the Labour party’s best interests at heart.
“I would just say Jeremy does need to take care about that.”
However, Corbyn who made his remarks about Clause IV in an interview yesterday, defended the anti-austerity message of his leadership campaign. He said: “We’re not going back anywhere, we’re going forward, we’re going forward in democracy, we’re going forward in participation, we’re going forward with ideas.”