Andy Burnham, the frontrunner for the Labour leadership, was jeered during the first hustings at a trade union conference when he refused to say outright whether he was opposed to an annual benefits cap of £23,000.
He said the issue was complex and could not be answered with the simple yes or no sought by the chair of the proceedings on Tuesday, the Daily Mirror journalist Kevin Maguire.
Burnham also suffered when he said the price of a litre of petrol was £1.60 when it is closer to £1.16. But he won warm applause when he said Labour had made a mistake by sharing a platform with the Tories during the Scottish referendum campaign, an error he said he would not allow the party to repeat in the EU referendum.
The shadow health secretary was speaking alongside four other leadership candidates at the GMB conference in Dublin, the first public hustings at an affiliated organisation since the election was called.
Jeremy Corbyn, the veteran leftwing MP and a late entrant to the race, probably won most applause with a strong stand against austerity and a rejection of nuclear weapons and overseas wars.
The other three candidates are Liz Kendall, the shadow health minister, Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, and Mary Creagh, the shadow international development secretary.
The five faced questions about the Labour-union link, MPs’ pay, the benefits cap and the party’s election manifesto. Nominations for the leadership close in a fortnight and the new leader will be elected in 11 weeks’.
Creagh told the 90-minute hustings she had surprised herself by her decision to stand, while Kendall admitted many of the delegates would not know her from Adam, or indeed Eve. Kendall repeatedly warned that Labour had lost the trust of the electorate over taxes and managing the economy and by failing to set out a compelling vision of the future.
“We cannot help the weak simply by railing against the strong,” she said, adding she wanted to see responsibility from top to bottom of society. Labour was “in mortal threat” and the scale of its general election defeat meant it must change or face irrelevance, she said. “Too many people thought we did not share their values of hard work, responsibility, taking care of yourself and your family.”
None of the candidates said they believed the election manifesto was too leftwing after one delegate asked whether they had all been in the toilet when it was agreed, given the document’s lack of protections for trade union rights. Apart from Creagh, the candidates said they would not share a platform with David Cameron during the in/out EU referendum campaign, but some said they were willing to be involved in an all-party campaign. Three said they supported the idea of a benefits cap, arguing that their constituents could not understand why people on benefits were being given more than what they earned in wages.
Burnham won applause when he said he thought the 2015 manifesto was the best of the four manifestos on which he had fought, but said he had not been involved as closely in its preparation as he had hoped. He also gave the unions a tough message, saying Labour could not win elections if it was seen as anti-business.
He argued that some of the language deployed by Ed Miliband was wrong, but praised the former Labour leader for the policies the party fought on.
Burnham said Labour had lost touch with its roots and many people thought the party was part of a Westminster elite that spoke in a political code they did not understand.
He said Labour had to address some uncomfortable truths, recounting a story of a constituent who said he felt alone in his own factory since he was the only one that spoke English. He said the man had told him: “People like you have no idea what my life is like and you are not speaking for people like me.”
Burnham stressed his own working class roots from Liverpool and promised to “lead a party that people can relate to”.
But he came under most pressure when he declined to give a straight yes or no on whether he supported a welfare cap at £23,000 a year, the same stance adopted by Cooper, who was also jeered.
Cooper said: “I understand that everybody wants a yes or a no but we need to reform the legislation. As it stands, I think it is unfair.”
Corbyn garnered cheers when he said he was opposed to the cap, saying the absence of regulated rents means there would be social cleansing in London. All five candidates said they would reject the 10% MPs’ pay rise and that they opposed regional pay bargaining in the public sector apart from London weighting.
Cooper stressed she would be a strong experienced leader capable of standing up to Cameron, adding if she became Labour leader she would give the prime minister an even bigger woman problem than he has at present. It was time to break the glass ceiling and for Labour to elect its first woman leader, she said.
The five candidates were asked a series of specific questions to test how much they were in touch with the cost of living.
Kendall correctly answered how much a TV licence cost, saying she paid by direct debit; Corbyn thought a prescription in England cost £7.60, rather than the correct figure of £8.20; Cooper thought the minimum wage for apprentices was under £3 an hour (it is £2.73). Burnham incorrectly guessed a litre of petrol was £1.60 rather than £1.16 and Creagh knew how much she paid for a loaf of bread at Tesco, £1.25.