Leonard faces soft-Brexit revolt as Corbyn rethinks

Richard Leonard has struck a more strident Eurosceptic tone than his boss. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA
Richard Leonard has struck a more strident Eurosceptic tone than his boss. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA
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Richard Leonard faces a Brexit revolt by Labour members at his first party conference as leader, with local constituency parties demanding that he embrace continued membership of the single market and customs union.

As of yesterday, ten out of the 73 constituency Labour parties (CLPs) in Scotland have backed motions in favour of remaining in the single market for debate at conference in Dundee on 11 March, pushing for a formal vote that could bind Leonard’s hands.

It comes as Jeremy Corbyn prepares to deliver a major speech on the EU tomorrow in which he is expected to announce a significant softening of his Brexit stance, acknowledging the need for a customs union with Brussels and opening the door for closer ties with the single market.

Corbyn has come under sustained pressure from his own party to change his approach, with polling suggesting Labour could lose much of its young supporter base if it went into an election with its current policy of opposing a soft Brexit.

Writing in Scotland on Sunday ahead of the speech, Labour MP Ian Murray said voters remain “confused” about Labour’s position on Brexit, and he warns that if the party does not seek to protect workers’ jobs through membership of the single market, “we will never be forgiven”.

He adds: “It’s time to end the ambiguity: if we are to limit the damage linked to the Tories’ Brexit, we need to stay as a participant in the European single market and customs union.”

Pressure will now mount on Leonard over the next fortnight. Labour’s conference arrangements committee will decide whether a pro-single market motion is taken forward for debate in Dundee.

Sources said the party will be under “incredible pressure” to allow a vote on a motion calling for Scottish Labour to adopt the stance taken by Carwyn Jones in Wales and Sadiq Khan in London. With union delegates allowed a conference vote and with the STUC and Unite backing a soft Brexit, Leonard could be forced to abandon his opposition to the single market.

In recent weeks, the Scottish Labour leader has struck a more strident Eurosceptic tone than Corbyn, declaring earlier this month that the EU “has been used to force through a market-based approach to some areas of public policy where markets should have no place, which in turn has driven down growth in our economy, driven down wages and driven up job insecurity”.

The list of CLPs backing the single market includes Edinburgh Southern, which covers much of Murray’s constituency and is by far 
the largest local party in Scotland with around 1,000 members.

The soft-Brexit CLPs represent top target seats where Corbyn needs engaged Labour activists to help him get into Downing Street, such as Glasgow Anniesland and Glasgow Kelvin, which make up the Westminster constituency of Glasgow North, and Greenock and Inverclyde, where the SNP has a majority of just 384 in the corresponding Westminster seat.

So far, the list also includes East Kilbride, Edinburgh Pentlands, Inverness and Nairn, Western Isles, Paisley, and Edinburgh West.

Commenting on the rush of pro-single market motions, Murray said: “Labour members in Edinburgh South and across the country are making their voices heard – they want our party to support permanent membership of the single market and the customs union.

“Given the strength of feeling among ordinary members, it’s vital that we debate this at conference.”

A Scottish Labour Party spokesperson said: “Motions for debate are a matter for the conference arrangements committee.”

Ahead of Corbyn’s speech, the SNP added to pressure on the Labour leader, with Ian Blackford warning the party was betraying its role as official opposition by “simply rubber-stamping Tory government plans”.

“Labour’s position on Brexit so far has been utterly shameful – with their failure to support continued membership of the single market and customs union they have been aiding and abetting the extreme Brexit proposed by the right-wing Tories now in charge of UK government policy,” the 
SNP’s Westminster leader said.

“If Labour are now buckling under pressure and prepared to commit to the customs union, that is welcome – but it doesn’t go far enough.”