FORMER First Minister Henry McLeish has called for Scottish Labour to become fully independent from the UK party which he claimed was “disintegrating”.
McLeish said that a Scottish breakaway from Labour at Westminster may be the “only way of keeping Scotland in the Union” and of offering an alternative to the SNP’s vision of independence.
He said that such a radical shake-up of Scottish Labour’s relationship with the UK party was needed to “break the hegemony of the SNP”.
The former First Minister has previously opposed calls for an independent Scottish Labour and instead backed much more autonomy for the party north of the Border.
However, McLeish suggested that the performance of Labour at Westminster under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership had helped convince him to shift his position on the issue.
McLeish warned that Labour at Westminster was unaware of its unpopularity with voters as he suggested that the Scottish party’s association with it could damage it in the minds of Scots.
He said: “I’m disappointed that the Labour Party down south at Westminster seems to be disintegrating.”
“I’ve often said that the Conservatives don’t understand Scotland, but I’m now concerned that UK Labour doesn’t seem to understand Scotland either.”
He said that Scottish Labour splitting from the UK party would allow it to relaunch itself as an “independent voice for Scotland” and promote the radical extension of devolution through home rule as an alternative to independence. However, McLeish, who was First Minister from 2000 to 2001, insisted that an independent Scottish Labour Party would continue to oppose independence.
He said: “An independent Labour Party is about having an independent voice for Scotland. It may be the only way of keeping Scotland in the Union.
“We can’t be tied to the coat- tails of the UK Labour Party. We have to have a new voice for Scotland.
“I want a party that’s an independent voice for Scotland, not a voice for independence.”
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has launched plans for “more autonomy” for the party in Scotland, which would see control over policy, membership, constituency parties and candidate selection transferred north of the Border.
However, McLeish said Scottish Labour should be an entirely separate organisation to the UK party and be in charge of all its own organisation and funding.
Under such an arrangement Scottish Labour would be a “sister party” to UK Labour, although its MPs would sit with those from England and Wales in the Commons, he said.
“Scottish Labour has to be the voice of Scotland unencumbered by Westminster.
“Labour in Scotland would be better able to shape the future if it was its own party and had its own raison d’être. At the end of the day this is needed to break the hegemony of the SNP.
“That means being fully independent. A lot of the UK party funding helps the Scottish Party, but we’ve got to be in a position where everything like policy, finance and selection of candidates is decided in Scotland.”
McLeish went onto say why he wanted Scottish Labour to distance itself more from the party at Westminster level, where he claimed the party was struggling under Corbyn’s leadership.
He said: “With UK Labour I don’t get the sense at Westminster that they appreciate how far down we are in the estimation of voters.”
“There are those saying that Jeremy has a mandate from the members, but what about the mandate from the public and voters?
“I’m concerned that there is no policy direction and that they seem to have squabbles over existing policy.
“I’m very willing to give the leadership a chance at Westminster, but it needs to recognise that Labour and the electorate are a broad church,”
McLeish also said that an independent Scottish Labour should not oppose a second referendum on independence, which he said should include options for Home Rule as well as leaving the UK. He said: “Labour should not be over-cautious about the need for a second referendum and Labour should be strong enough to lead that debate.
“If we have a referendum, there has to be more than one question and Labour has to start to provide an alternative.
“It may well be that you could have another question on whether Scotland requires further constitutional changes. You could have an option of Home Rule or independence.
“If you continue with the straight Yes-No debate that will be the way to carry independence towards a Yes vote.
“We are falling into the trap of drip-feeding Scotland into leaving the Union.”