POLITICS

Tory Welfare Rebellion Would Have Led To 'Civil War' If He'd Quit, Andy Burnham Declares

25/07/2015 17:50 BST | Updated 25/07/2015 19:01 BST

Andy Burnham has made an impassioned defence of his decision to abstain on the Tory welfare bill, declaring that he was not prepared to plunge Labour into 'civil war' by quitting the Shadow Cabinet over the issue.

The Labour leadership candidate told the final official hustings that the party had been left 'crying out for leadership' in the wake of the fiasco over Harriet Harman's handling of the Government's Welfare Reform and Work Bill.

Heckled by a party member as to why he'd not voted against the legislation, Mr Burnham said that to have defied his party whip would have meant him resigning and undermined his own demand for loyalty if he became leader.

Only Mr Corbyn voted against the second reading of the welfare bill this week, prompting accusations that Mr Burnham had 'flip-flopped' from his previous warning that the legislation was 'unsupportable'.

Yvette Cooper and Mr Burnham have both criticised Ms Harman for ordering Labour MPs to abstain and have vowed to oppose the bill at its later stages if the Tories refuse to reverse cuts to child tax credits and curbs to benefits for families with more than two children.

At the hustings in Warrington, Mr Burnham tore up his summing up speech to tackle head on the criticism of his decision not to vote against the welfare bill.

“This party is confused isn’t it?. It’s crying out for leadership. Something has happened this week, I owe you an explanation. People are asking why I voted to support the party line on the welfare bill and I’ll tell you why.." he said.

One heckler then interrupted to say he wanted an explanation.

“Someone said ‘yeah'. I’ll tell you why," Mr Burnham said. "Because I was not prepared to plunge this party into civil war."

"There are as many views on that bill as there are people on this platform. If I had led the rebellion out of the Shadow Cabinet, I would have plunged this party into a conflict. And how could then I have commanded the loyalty and unity of this party coming out of it?

"Because make no mistake if I am leader in a few weeks time, this party will be opposing the welfare bill, we’ll be fighting it line by line in committee. And I will be asking the party for loyalty to me as I have shown this party this week.

"I was criticised early in this contest for putting the party first. I did put the party first so we could put the country first and stand up for people out there who have been battered by this Government. I can unite this party which is in danger at the moment of splitting. Why? Because I’ve got a vision you can believe in."

Mr Burnham stressed that he was not against reform but said that the best way to tackle housing benefit bills was to let councils build more homes to cut out private landlords.

Ms Cooper said that she wanted welfare reform but said that the past week had been a 'real mess' for the party and those who wanted to oppose Tory cuts to benefits.

The Shadow Home Secretary pointed out she had relied on benefit when she was ill as a youngster with ME.

Liz Kendall, the only leadership candidate to give Ms Harman her wholehearted backing for the way she handled the party row, said that 'welfare is failing' because the Tory Work Programme was not getting people into work.

Mr Corbyn said that he feared under David Cameron the UK was drifting to an 'individual welfare state' where tax and national insurance were replaced by social insurance and private provision.

During the hustings, Mr Burnham - who described himself as a 'Northern Powerhouse' to take on the Conservatives - also said that Labour had failed on immigration at the last election when 'looking people in the eye' on the doorstep was difficult because of the party's poor messaging.

In a jibe at Mr Corbyn's recent popularity, Ms Cooper urged the party not to choose the candidate 'who makes you feel good', but to instead pick a potential Prime Minister, someone who would give David Cameron 'a real women problem'.

She repeated her backing for a 50p top tax rate and said that she would lead a campaign to defend Sure Start children's centres cut back by the Tory-led Coalition cuts to funding.

In the separate deputy leadership hustings, Angela Eagle slammed Tony Blair for telling Corbyn supporters to get a heart 'transplant', while Ben Bradshaw hit out at those who criticised modernisers like Ms Kendall as 'Tories'.

Tom Watson also criticised former No.10 spin doctor John McTernan for saying that those MPs who nominated Mr Corbyn were 'morons'.

Stella Creasy and Caroline Flint also rounded on the infighting of late, but both said that it was the deputy leader's job to offer private but constructive criticism of the party leader.