A couple of weeks ago, leadership contender Andy Burnham infamously abstained on the welfare bill vote - even after suggesting that he personally opposed it. And, to say the least, everyone was pretty angry about it. For example, lately, if you look at the replies to most of Burnham's tweets, they're something along the lines of "Nice try, but I lost all respect for you when you abstained." And it does certainly seem to have harmed his campaign, with many people claiming they switched from Burnham to Corbyn after the vote.
However, one thing that was really bugging me was that people were just automatically condemning Burnham as a bad person, or as someone who "flip-flops" without actually trying to understand his reasons. Fair enough, you believe that on principle the bill should have been opposed even after the amendment failed to pass, I personally, felt the same. But Burnham has been ruthlessly criticised for it - notably much more so than Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, and every other Labour MP who abstained, and his actually pretty understandable reasons seem to have gotten lost in all of this furious moral condemnation.
It is worth noting that Burnham actually wanted party position to be to oppose the bill. The Guardian reported that he disclosed that he told the shadow cabinet that the welfare bill was unsupportable and the party should not abstain at second reading if the government did not accept Labour amendments. Andy Burnham wanted the party position to be opposition - he made that quite clear. But he, obviously, isn't leader yet, and so party position was not up to him, it was up to Harriet Harman. Harman decided that party position would be to abstain if the amendment - which Burnham helped to secure, failed to pass. Burnham is obviously a member of the shadow cabinet, such a blatant show of defiance to the leader would have meant that he would have had to resign, and he was correct when, in Warrington on the 25 July, he said it would have plunged the party into "civil war".
How could Burnham ask for loyalty from the Parliamentary Labour party if he became leader, had he not shown it to the leader himself? Would that not have also made him a hypocrite, as many labelled him after he abstained? What people seem to be forgetting when they condemn him is that Andy Burnham has already said, several times, that if he is leader the party position will be to oppose the bill at third reading, as he wanted it to be at second, and he will ask for the loyalty that he showed to Harman. Would it not be more difficult for Jeremy Corbyn as leader to ask for loyalty from the PLP in opposing the bill, when he as a member of the PLP had not shown it to Harman?
I know what you're thinking - that there is this overriding moral rule that the bill should have been voted against on principle - and I agree with that, I am not trying to defend the actual position of abstaining, but that was decided by Harriet Harman and thus if there is blame to place for a lack of opposition, it rests on her shoulders. It is easy to sit at home with no secondary consequences and announce that all those who abstained are a disgrace to the party and labour values (I was, rather hypocritically, originally one of those people) but imagine the difficulty when you are a member of the shadow cabinet, running for leader, who has a duty to the interim leader, and a duty to the party, to try and keep it united. Burnham most likely knew that abstaining would harm his campaign, but he put the party, and party unity, before his campaign, because he knew the damage that would have been done to the party had he voted against. Yes - of course Labour has a duty to oppose unfair measures that will send more into poverty, and I only wish that Harman had understood this, but to do this effectively, Labour has to be strong, Labour has to be united, and Burnham, in his abstaining, was trying to keep Labour strong and united - because those people need it to be.
You might not necessarily agree with Andy Burnham's reasons for abstaining on the welfare bill - but at least try to understand them.