Purnell and Milburn hint at Labour disquiet

Former Cabinet minister Alan Milburn stirred up Labour’s leadership row today with a coded attack on Gordon Brown and a call for the party to embrace “change” if it wants to win back voters.

Mr Milburn’s criticism, in a pamphlet for the Blairite thinktank Progress ahead of the party conference, came as an opinion poll suggested that Labour are a record 28 points behind the Tories after the latest bout of infighting.

And it follows comments by work and pensions secretary James Purnell in which he refuses to condemn those MPs calling for a Labour leadership election.

Mr Milburn’s intervention will focus attention on the leadership split, although he has made no secret of his distaste for Mr Brown since he resigned as health secretary in 2003, saying that he wanted to spend more time with his family.

“One of New Labour’s key strengths has been its preparedness to face the future challenge rather than taking comfort in the past achievement,” he wrote.

“The willingness to change is what has made New Labour so dominant in British politics and forced even our most strident opponents into contemplating changes they once thought abhorrent. Now change beckons once again.”

In an interview in the New Statesman, Mr Purnell said he could understand why MPs wanted a contest, although he did not agree with them.

“I think it would be ridiculous to pretend that you can’t complain when you’re worried. I mean, I’m worried that we’re 20 points behind. I’m not going to condemn people or question their motives. [But] I don’t agree with what they did,” Purnell said.

Purnell told the magazine he agreed with John Hutton, the business secretary, who also refused to condemn the rebels when he gave an interview at the weekend.