Labour leadership candidate Andy Burnham takes part in a hustings in The Old Fruitmarket, Candleriggs on July 10, 2015 in Glasgow. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Burnham agrees to abstain on welfare bill - but threatens opposition as leader

Leadership candidate accepts Harman's position but says he will oppose the bill at Third Reading in the absence of "major changes". 

Ahead of tonight's vote on the welfare bill, Andy Burnham has written to all Labour MPs outlining his stance. The leadership candidate, who helped persuade Harriet Harman to table an amendment to the legislation, writes that "in truth, it [the amendment] could be stronger". As I reported on Friday, Burnham was unhappy at its "weak wording"

But after arguing at shadow cabinet last week that Labour should vote against the bill if its amendment is defeated, the shadow health secretary has fallen into line by agreeing to abstain. He writes: "Collective responsibility is important and it is what I would expect as Leader of our Party. It is why I will be voting for our Reasoned Amendment and, if it is defeated, abstaining on the Bill." Had he broken the whip and voted against the legislation he would, by convention, have had to resign from the shadow cabinet. But Burnham adds that in the absence of "major changes" to the bill at commitee stage, he will, if elected leader, vote against it at Third Reading. 

By writing to MPs two hours before the debate begins, Burnham has cemented his status as the leader of the revolt against Harman. But while this is natural positioning in a left-leaning leadership contest, several of Burnham's colleagues are unhappy at his stance. By publicly revealing his disagreement with Harman at shadow cabinet, they believe that he helped the Tories to exploit Labour divisions and made it harder to demand "loyalty" in the future (in the words of one shadow cabinet minister). 

Meanwhile, in a sign of how he will occupy territory to Labour's left, Tim Farron has announced that the Lib Dems will vote against the bill. The new leader said: "The truth is the Tories do not have to cut £12bn from welfare: they are choosing to. The Liberal Democrats will always stand up for families. We will not let the Conservatives, through choice, and the Labour party, through silence, unpick our welfare system."

Here's Burnham's letter in full.

 

Dear Colleague

 

I wanted to update you on my position ahead of today’s vote on the Welfare Reform and Work Bill.

 

The Party has come to a position over the last week and we now have a Reasoned Amendment which sets out our opposition to the Bill.

 

As you know, I was very clear last weekend that we could not simply abstain on this Bill and that we needed to set out where we have agreement with reforms, but more importantly, where we strongly disagree.  For example, I have said that, as Leader, I will oppose the two-child policy.

 

I also strongly oppose the changes in this Bill that will increase child poverty whilst at the same time abolishing the child poverty reduction target.  I will always defend our record as a Labour Government of supporting low-paid people in work, and into work, through our tax credits.

 

For these reasons, I have led calls for the Party to change its position.

 

Our Reasoned Amendment sets out clearly our opposition to many aspects of the Bill. In truth, it could be stronger but it declines to give the Bill a Second Reading and, therefore, voting for it tonight is the right thing to do.

 

The Tories want to use this period to brand us in the way they did in 2010. We must not allow that to happen. 

 

Collective responsibility is important and it is what I would expect as Leader of our Party. It is why I will be voting for our Reasoned Amendment and, if it is defeated, abstaining on the Bill.

 

But I can reassure you that this is only the beginning of a major fight with the Tories. I am determined that we will fight this regressive Bill line by line, word by word in Committee.  If the Government do not make the major changes during Committee stage, then, as Leader, I will oppose this Bill at Third Reading.

 

Yours sincerely

 

Andy Signature

 

Andy Burnham

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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