Andy Burnham on collision course with Harriet Harman as Labour divisions deepen over welfare

Front-runner in Labour leadership battle disagrees with interim leader's call for the party to abstain in key vote on welfare cuts next week

Click to follow

Andy Burnham has put himself on a collision course with interim Labour leader Harriet Harman over her desire to abstain on the government’s radical reforms to the welfare system next week.

He made his views clear at a meeting of the shadow cabinet, calling for the party to put forward a “reasoned amendment” to try to water down some of the deep cuts to benefits proposed in the government’s Welfare Reform and Work Bill.

He told his colleagues that the party should oppose the overall bill if the amendment failed, describing the current package as “unsupportable” due to measures to exclude under-25s from the new £7.20-an-hour National Living Wage, the abolition of child poverty targets and reductions to Employment and Support Allowance for disabled people deemed fit to work.

It puts him at odds with Ms Harman, who urged the party to abstain in the vote. She told a meeting of Labour MPs that providing "blanket opposition" to welfare reform would be "hung around our neck" in the future by the Conservatives and would allow Labour to be portrayed as the party of benefits.

In a pointed remark about Ms Harman’s call for the party to prove it had listened to voters’ concerns over welfare by backing measures such as George Osborne’s decision to limit child tax credits to the first two children, Mr Burnham joked that he had failed “George and Harriet’s two-child test” because he had three children.

Taking the rare move to disclose his disagreement with the party’s leader, Mr Burnham, the front-runner to succeed Ms Harman, refused to rule out the possibility of rebelling against his party’s position by voting against the welfare bill if she insists on abstention in next week's vote.

However he was keen to stress that he was someone who “normally” supported the party’s “collective line” and said he will decide which way to vote once the party has made its final decision.

"I don't think Harriet did get it right in certain aspects on the Welfare Reform Bill," he told reporters at a lunch in Westminster.

“The Welfare Reform and Work Bill is unsupportable because it doesn't do what it says on the tin - support work. In fact, it does the opposite. It diminishes work incentives with its changes to tax credits and the ESA. It doesn't encourage people into work. It fact it might do the opposite. It contains some punitive measures in respect of child poverty.”

In a speech on Wednesday, Mr Hunt will argue that a “lack of patriotism” has hurt Labour in England and the party must now “wrap itself in the [St George’s] flag” and celebrate national successes such as England’s third-place finish at the women’s football World Cup.

“We were beaten by a tag-team of Nicola Sturgeon and David Cameron,” he will say. “If Scottish Labour needs to rediscover its cultural and emotional ties to the Scottish identity, then the Labour party in England needs to embrace our English identity.”