Ed Balls, a Labour leadership contender, called on Sunday for new restrictions on the free movement of unskilled workers in Europe as he accused Gordon Brown of brushing concerns about immigration “under the carpet”.

Mr Balls’s attempts to distance himself from the former prime minister – his patron for more than 15 years – came before hustings on Monday night n which the leadership hopefuls will make their pitch to Labour MPs and peers.

A number of hose hoping to succeed Mr Brown have admitted that Labour lost contact with its core voters on the issue of immigration, but Mr Balls’s proposal to restrict EU immigration was the most dramatic input into the debate so far.

Interviewed on the BBC’s Politics Show, Mr Balls suggested that rewriting the EU treaty’s provisions on the free movement of labour, warning that large flows of unskilled workers put strains on communities. “The hard-headed view says if you believe in European integration – and you want to have the mobility of labour – the free mobility of unskilled labour is not sustainable for communities like the one I represent,” he said.

Mr Balls represents a Yorkshire constituency which saw an influx of immigrants from eastern Europe after the “big bang” EU enlargement of 2004. He said the possible future accession of Turkey could create a similarly “destabilising” exodus of workers across Europe.

While the EU can impose temporary restrictions – the UK has limited immigration from Bulgaria and Romania – he believed that more permanent restrictions on unskilled labour might be necessary. The former schools secretary said he urged Mr Brown to address immigration but his ill-fated encounter with Gillian Duffy, a Rochdale pensioner, suggested that he was in denial. “I think Gordon’s answer to Mrs Duffy showed he had not been having that conversation,” he said.

Mr Balls is facing competition from David and Ed Miliband for the Labour leadership: all three have mustered the necessary 33 nominations from MPs.

Andy Burnham, former health secretary, said he was “confident” he would get enough support to go on to the ballot paper by the time nominations close on Wednesday. He told the Financial Times that while he supported New Labour’s decision to become a pro-business party under Tony Blair, the party gave the impression that it had been “seduced by power, wealth and glamour”.

Mr Burnham said when Mr Brown’s administration rescued the failing banks, the public mistakenly believed “we had acted to save the bankers, not to help savers and the wider economy”.

The former health secretary, who comes from a working-class Merseyside background, will tell MPs he has an “instinctive” ability to understand the concerns of his party’s supporters, including questions of social mobility, the pressures facing lower middle class families and the insecurity of the elderly.

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