Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn scored an historical coup last night (11 October), as a rival of his admitted Clement Attlee, one of the party's most respected prime ministers, would join the left-winger's shadow cabinet if he were alive today.

Historian and Stoke-on-Trent Central MP Tristram Hunt said Attlee would take a position on the front bench as a "servant to the party", despite his expected disagreements with Corbyn.

"I think he would probably do the parliamentary job as a kind of servant of the party and, with those elements of industriousness and duty that he had, he would sublimate some of his objections and hostilities," Hunt said.

"If he was there, he would take quite a practical and pragmatic view."

Another well-known Labour thinker Jon Cruddas, the MP for Dagenham and Rainham, said Attlee would "see it as his duty" to rebuild a "public philosophy" for Labour.

"That's what's lost really," Cruddas said. "He himself being anchored within a specific tradition [of socialism], but at the same time he was agile enough to appropriate and learn and build into a public policy programme of other traditions.

"He would see it as the outstanding task of our time for the left – to reimagine its purpose."

Cruddas explained Attlee, the co-architect of the NHS and the UK's welfare state, "calibrated radicalism alongside patriotic progressivism" and claimed he would find Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell's brand of socialism "bewildering".

"John comes from a specific deterministic hard-left tradition, which I think Attlee would find pretty bewildering really that it still exists today," he said.

The Labour MPs were speaking at a New Statesman event hosted by the Policy Exchange think tank. John Bew, author of Citizen Clem, also distanced the post-Second World War prime minister from Corbyn.

He argued supporters of the current Labour leader "missed the point" by wearing "What would Clem do?" T-shirts. The biography is published at a pivotal time for the party.

Corbyn still faces opposition from some of parliamentary party and he is currently finalising his reshuffle, which has seen some Labour MPs such as Sir Keir Starmer return to his top team.

The latest opinion poll from ICM for The Guardian, of more than 2,000 people between 7 and 9 October, put the Conservatives 17 points ahead of Labour (43% versus 26%). The next general election is scheduled for 2020.