I'd be proud to follow Blair and Brown's lead, says Burnham

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Indy Politics

Andy Burnham, one of four former cabinet ministers vying to be the next Labour leader, has announced that he is "proud" to be seen as the candidate who would carry on where Gordon Brown and Tony Blair left off. He defended the most contentious decision of the Blair years, to send British troops to war in Iraq, unlike his rivals, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, who have distanced themselves from the war.

"I don't back away from the original decision," he said. "I think it gave 20 or so million people in Iraq hope of a better life and you just cannot walk away from that truth."

The former health secretary also praised Gordon Brown for his performances in the live television debates, and for his "unbelievable" achievements as prime minister. He blamed Labour's defeat principally on a failure to get across its policy on immigration. He said immigration was the main issue in the campaign, because of its effect on jobs and housing in areas where there was a high concentration of immigrants.

Asked on BBC1's Andrew Marr programme whether this made him the "continuity candidate", Mr Burnham replied: "I'm quite proud to be. Labour did really good things, and at the beginning of New Labour we said things that connected with the public, that we would be tough on crime, that we would be pro-business and that we would really support those who want to get on in life. Labour mustn't walk away from those really important messages."

Brought up in Warrington, the son of a telephone engineer, Mr Burnham has traded on his working-class background in the contest. During yesterday's interview, he pointed out that he still has his Northern accent.

Although he entered the campaign as an outsider, Ladbrokes yesterday shortened its odds on a Burnham victory from 8/1 to 7/1. If the bookies are right, Mr Burnham is placed to come third, behind the Miliband brothers, but is catching up on Ed. The younger Miliband's campaign was fortified yesterday by an endorsement from Neil Kinnock, who led the party for eight years and still wields influence.

Lord Kinnock said having the four former ministers to choose from meant that Labour had "an embarrassment of riches", but claimed that the former energy secretary was more of a leader than any of the others. "Leadership requires an amalgamation of capabilities," he told the BBC's Politics Show. "You need ability; that is self-evident. You certainly need fluency, and you need people who are bright, but in addition you need the capacity to lead. That means articulating the needs and desires of those who are on your side, but also convincing those who have other needs and desires, who are not yet on your side. I'm certain Ed Miliband has that capacity. He's got the ability to inspire people, which is rare in politics."

Iraq has emerged as the first bone of contention in the contest. Over the weekend, the former education secretary Ed Balls called it a "mistake" and Ed Miliband has said it had caused a "catastrophic loss of trust". Neither Mr Balls nor the younger of the Miliband brothers was an MP at the time when the Commons voted to go to war, though Mr Balls held an influential post as adviser to Gordon Brown. David Miliband, who was an MP in 2003, and foreign secretary under Mr Brown, has stood by his support for the war.

The two outsiders in the race, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell – who face an uphill task finding the 33 nominations from fellow MPs that they will need to get on the ballot paper – both voted against going to war.