Labour leadership candidate Liz Kendall has said it will be a disaster for the party if polling proves accurate and the leftwinger Jeremy Corbyn wins the contest.
She explicitly rejected a claim from John Prescott, the former deputy prime minister, who used an interview on Thursday to describe Corbyn as a “great guy” who would not be as bad for the party as his critics feared.
In a sign of how the election is already generating severe ructions in the party, Lord Prescott also used his appearance on Radio 4’s Today programme to criticise Tony Blair for saying that supporters of Corbyn needed a heart transplant.
Asked about the impact on Labour of Corbyn winning, Prescott – who is backing Andy Burnham – said: “I don’t think it would be a disaster.”
A few hours later Kendall, who was placed last in the YouGov poll, bluntly disagreed. A Corbyn victory “would be a disaster”, she told the BBC. “Turning back to the politics of the 1980s, which saw us suffer defeat after defeat, does nothing to help the people we all came into politics to serve.”
She also insisted that she would not be dropping out of the contest, despite unnamed Labour figures telling newspapers that she should in the hope of making it easier for Burnham or Yvette Cooper to win. “I will be fighting for what I believe in till the very end,” she said.
Kendall’s comments about Corbyn were backed by Alan Miliburn, the Blairite former health secretary. He said: “I’m afraid history tells a very brutal lesson about what happens when Labour lurches to the left.
“You are out of office, not for five years or 10, but for very many years to come. Now, if the Labour party really does have a death wish, then that is where it will go.”
On Wednesday Blair, the former PM, ridiculed those in the party who said their heart was urging them to support Corbyn. “When people say: ‘My heart says I should really be with that politics’, get a transplant,” Blair said.
But on Thursday Prescott told the BBC: “I have a lot of respect for Tony Blair, I worked for him a lot of years, but to use that kind of language is just abuse. The Labour party is about the heart, as well as the head, and to suggest somebody should have a transplant if they are making decisions by the heart is totally unacceptable.”
The peer, who largely managed to keep his disagreements with Blair private during the 10 years he served as deputy prime minister, said Blair should also remember that it was the Iraq war that was stopping people voting Labour.
He was even more critical of John McTernan, a former aide to Blair in No 10 and Jim Murphy’s chief of staff when Murphy was Scottish Labour leader. McTernan claimed on Newsnight that the Labour MPs who nominated Corbyn just to allow him to take part in the leadership contest were “morons”.
Prescott said: “Who the heck is John McTernan? He advised in Scotland, and we lost. He advised in Australia, and we lost. … He has no authority.”
Prescott also criticised Harriet Harman, the acting Labour leader, for her handling of the party’s approach to the welfare bill vote on Monday night. Harman ensured that Labour MPs were ordered to abstain on the main vote. But Prescott said this was “silly”, and that she had no right, as interim leader, to settle policy on such an important issue.
Describing the affair as a mess, he said: “It was a decision made by Harriet. She had no authority to make it. The shadow cabinet was against it, the PLP [parliamentary Labour party] was against it. I think Harriet got it wrong.”
In a comment to the Times, Peter Mandelson, another senior party figure from the Blair years, said that the current leadership turmoil reminded him of the 1980s and that the entire future of the party was at stake.
“Those of us who stayed and fought to save the Labour party in the 1980s will be experiencing a growing sense of deja vu,” he said. “The last five years have left us with a terrible legacy to overcome with the existence of the Labour party as an effective electoral force now at stake.”
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