Leadership rivals clash as Labour risks being '˜branch office'

Scottish Labour risks returning to 'branch office' status if the party's next leader fails to stand up to Jeremy Corbyn and unions are allowed to swing the result, Anas Sarwar has claimed as he clashed with rival Richard Leonard over which candidate is more independent.

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn takes a photograph as he listens to speeches during their annual conference at the Brighton Centre. Picture: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Mr Sarwar’s comments follow reports that unions could “stitch up” the contest by signing up thousands of members through its political levy to back Mr Leonard, who is considered to be closest to UK leader Jeremy Corbyn and whose supporters control a key committee that will police the ballot.

The former Glasgow MP said the contest had to take place within “thee written rules and also the spirit of the rules as well”.

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Mr Leonard hit back, highlighting his consistent support for left-wing politics in comments seen as highlighting Mr Sarwar’s one-time opposition to Mr Corbyn’s leadership.

He insisted support from union Unite “wasn’t a decision taken by [general secretary] Len McCluskey, it was a decision taken by the rank and file leadership of Unite in Scotland.”

Supporters of the former GMB union organiser also questioned Mr Sarwar’s claim that he would “choose Scotland” rather than follow UK policy after he backed renewal of the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system.

Speaking at a hustings event at the Labour conference in Brighton, Mr Sarwar said he would be ready to stand up to Mr Corbyn as leader. “It’s about saying, in a grown-up environment, with an autonomous Scottish Labour Party not being a branch office,” he said. “We can take different decisions in Scotland that are right for Scotland’s interests.”

Drawing attention to a call last year for Mr Corbyn to stand down, Mr Leonard said: “I’ve held the same views throughout my 35 years as a member of the Labour party and in that sense, I’m similar to Jeremy Corbyn in that I’ve been consistent, and there have been times when I’ve been accused of being off message and out of fashion.”
Both candidates called on the UK party to vote down Theresa May’s Brexit deal at Westminster to bring about an early general election.

They rejected calls from ex-leader Kezia Dugdale for a referendum on the terms of the UK’s deal, but the comments will add to pressure on the UK Labour front bench to harden its opposition to Brexit. London Mayor Sadiq Khan has today also called for Labour to back a referendum once the terms of the UK’s Brexit deal are known.

The candidates also traded blows over their position in the UK Labour party, with Mr Sarwar suggesting that union support for his rival risked returning the Scottish party to “branch office” status, while Mr Leonard sought to highlight inconsistencies in his opponent’s support for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.

Asked about Ms Dugdale’s intervention in a newspaper column, both candidates expressed a hope that Labour could collapse the government ahead of the conclusion of Brexit in March 2019.
“I’m not persuaded that we need a second referendum,” said Mr Leonard, adding that Ms Dugdale’s call was “premature”.

He said: “The process that we’re involved in will lead to the deal going back to Westminster, and I think there’s a possibility of Westminster voting that deal down, which would in turn precipitate a general election, and I think as a Labour party that is something we should relish.

“So I’m not contemplating second referendums, I want to see an early general election, and I want to see Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister.”

Mr Leonard went further when asked again if there should be another referendum on Brexit. “I hope there will be a parliamentary process that does stop it,” he said.

Mr Sarwar said there was “election fatigue” in Scotland and that politicians had to “respect the mandates that are given by the public”.

He added: “We should not accept Tory Brexit and I would love there to be an election before the deal is concluded while we are still in that transition period, so that we can take over the negotiations and make sure we get the Brexit deal that works.”

During the hustings, Mr Sarwar also hit back at criticism over his decision to send his children to private school, claiming questions about his family usually depended on which “faction” of the Labour party the questioner belonged to.