Belfast Telegraph

Burnham offers Labour free rein

Labour Party members in Northern Ireland should be able to decide for themselves if they stand as candidates for election next year, leadership hopeful Andy Burnham said.

If elected as Gordon Brown's successor in September, Mr Burnham indicated he would not prevent the regional association contesting the council or assembly polls.

Labour has a long standing policy of not fighting elections in Northern Ireland due to its link with sister party the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

But members have persistently lobbied for the same rights and opportunities as counterparts in Great Britain and last year formed an official constituency association for the region. Leigh MP Mr Burnham, who was in Belfast today to thank the local party for backing his leadership bid, said any decision to run in next year's elections would have to take on board the views of the SDLP.

"I will not be a Labour leader who tries dictate to Labour members anywhere," he said. "Ultimately the Labour party is about the members. It will be a decision (to contest elections) here for the chair and secretary of the Northern Ireland Labour Party. We would ask that it would be sensitive to the reality on the ground and the views of our sister organisations."

Local secretary Boyd Black welcomed the comments from Mr Burnham, who is vying with brothers David and Ed Miliband, Ed Balls and Diane Abbott for the leadership.

"We have our eyes on local government elections next year as a possible starting point," Mr Black added. "As an organisation we are very keen to get into the business of contesting elections.

"We don't underestimate how difficult it's going to be and obviously there is the chance, if we do put our foot in the water, we can get trounced but my feeling is there is growing body of opinion that does want to move away from the old arguments we've had for the last 20 or 30 years and is fed up with a lot of argy-bargy that is going on, and is modern, secular and anti-sectarian."

During his day-long visit to the city, Mr Burnham also vowed to vigorously oppose the public-sector cuts projected in Northern Ireland as a result of the coalition Government's bid to reduce the national debt.

"I believe that the cuts that we are soon to see will threaten the economic development of Northern Ireland and I believe we need to show a united front in resisting the damage on that scale," he said.

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