Labour leadership contest exposes glaring rift on response to Scottish independence debate

Labour divisions over the prospect of a second referendum on independence were laid bare as the candidates vying for the UK leadership and its deputy role clashed in Glasgow yesterday.

Frontrunners Sir Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey appeared split over the constitution. The former pledged not to impose policy from London on the Scottish party, while Long-Bailey made it clear she would grant a second referendum on independence if this was requested by the Scottish Parliament.

Scottish party leader Richard Leonard had earlier warned that future policy on the constitution must be made north of the border.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

Long-Bailey insisted Labour would never rejoin a cross-party Better Together-style body in the event of a future referendum – prompting an angry rebuff from the party’s only Scottish MP for “trashing” the victorious 2014 pro-Union campaign.

Labour leadership frontrunner Sir Kier Starmer insisted he will work with the party in Scotland

Labour’s new leader and deputy leader will be unveiled on 4 April. Yesterday the three leadership candidates, including Lisa Nandy, faced off in a hustings event at the Scottish Event Campus in Glasgow.

Independence featured heavily as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon demands the right to hold a second referendum on independence after the SNP’s landslide election victory north of the border in December.

Starmer insisted he will work with the party in Scotland. “There won’t be any imposition from London, I’ll be working with Scottish Labour.”

He said whether or not Holyrood should have the power to stage a fresh ballot on the issue was “an interesting question”, but added: “We shouldn’t get sucked straight into that.

“The SNP are constantly using the constitutional issue to mask the real issues, and if we get into that we are falling into their trap.”

Leonard had earlier warned, in what he described as his “abiding message” to the UK leadership hopefuls, that the position on a second referendum must be settled north of the border.

“The policy of this Labour party on Scotland’s constitutional future must be written here in Scotland by a Scottish Labour Party and written by us alone.”

But Long-Bailey again made it clear that she would not block a second independence referendum if this was requested by the Scottish Parliament, warning such a barrier would drive voters “into the arms of the SNP”.

“As a democrat I have to say that if the Scottish Parliament makes the request for a referendum I don’t believe that as a democratic party we could refuse that,” she said.

The pro-independence SNP-Greens majority at Holyrood voted in favour of a second referendum last month.

And in a move which appeared to cut across the autonomy of Scottish Labour, Long-Bailey added: “We can’t fall into the trap like we did last time where we joined forces with the Conservative party in the Better Together campaign.

“Nicola Sturgeon wants to paint us as a party of the establishment and we’re not.”

She was backed by deputy leadership candidate Richard Burgon, who said it would be “counterproductive” for a UK government to intervene.

“If the Scottish people desire another independence referendum then Westminster shouldn’t block it,” he said.

He added that sharing a platform with the Tories in Better Together saw Labour come across as part of the establishment which has left a “damaging electoral legacy”.

None the less, both Burgon and Long-Bailey insisted they were opposed to independence and would campaign against it.

Scottish Labour’s position on the constitution had previously been marked by its opposition to another referendum. But this was thrown into disarray last summer when Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell announced during a trip to the Edinburgh festival that if Jeremy Corbyn was prime minister, his government would not block a second referendum on independence if this was requested by the Scottish Parliament.

But Ian Murray, member for Edinburgh South, and the only Labour MP in Scotland to survive Labour’s dismal election performance last December, dismissed this approach on the constitutional debate and pointed out that the SNP won less than half (45 per cent) of the popular vote in the election.

“Let’s stop dancing to the tune of our opponents,” said Murray.

“There’s no mandate for a second referendum – 45 per cent is not a mandate.”

“And secondly, let’s never have a senior member of the Labour party come to Scotland during a UK general election and throw the Scottish Labour Party under a bus.”

He insisted that Labour must be clear in its opposition to both independence and a second referendum and warned against the “extreme nationalism” being proposed by the SNP as Scotland prepares for the Holyrood elections next year.

He added: “We will never win in 2021 unless we are strong on the constitution, and being strong on that constitution starts with not trashing our record in government over 13 years, and second, not trashing the way we saved the country in 2014.”

Murray campaigned on behalf of the Better Together campaign in the 2014 election.

The referendum issue has split Labour in Scotland, with senior figures like health spokeswoman Monica Lennon claiming Holyrood should be allowed to decide on the issue after the SNP’s election victory in Scotland.