The new leader of Scottish Labour, Richard Leonard, has set out a radical programme of redistributive taxation, along with pledges to return Scotland’s railways to public ownership, protect tenants against soaring rents, and to go into the next Holyrood election promising not to sign any new private finance deals.
Leonard accused the Scottish National party of complacency over the economic insecurity experienced by ordinary people, including his own brother-in-law, whose struggle with short-term contract work he described to delegates. Speaking at his first conference since his convincing victory in last November’s leadership election, he also promised that his party would offer voters “the biggest programme of social and economic reform in the history of the Scottish parliament”.
Leonard said Scotland’s wealth gap should “not only anger us as socialists, [but] offend our sense of morality as a nation”, and dedicated his party to “fundamentally change the existing economic system”.
In a wide-ranging speech, which was warmly applauded by activists in Dundee’s Caird Hall, the former GMB organiser added that “trade unions have a major task not just in defending their members but playing a part in planning the economy”.
Labour sources say that raw data from recent private polling shows a significant boost in Westminster voting intentions, with Labour at 30%, just four percentage points behind the SNP at 34%. This appeared to be reflected by the experience of activists who, at the cautiously optimistic conference, reported getting more of a hearing on the doorstep than in recent years.
Accusing the SNP of “cynically using the Tory shambles as a way to sow more division in its never-ending quest for independence”, and commending UK leader Jerermy Corbyn’s position, which he set out to the conference on Friday, Leonard added: “Let’s keep our options open to get the best deal that we can in the future”.
This qualification may be an acknowledgement of the dispute over the Scottish party’s policy on Brexit that has marred the weekend, after the party’s centrists pressed hard for a vote in favour of the UK remaining in the single market.
That group, led by the former Scottish leader, Kezia Dugdale, has been granted a debate on Sunday on single market membership but Scottish Labour’s executive has tabled a “unity motion” which supports Jeremy Corbyn’s policy rejecting single market membership.
Corbyn told the Guardian he believed Scottish Labour members would rally behind his policy, which he set out in detail in a speech in Coventry in late February. “Of course there is a debate; let’s see what happens. After all we’re a very big, very democratic party,” he said.
“But I’m very confident the party in Scotland will recognise the way we have to bring people together, the broad outline that I have set out on behalf of the party both in Coventry and here today, and will come together around it.”
The Scottish executive motion, which is expected to be passed, endorses Corbyn’s policy on agreeing “a new permanent customs union” to protect tariff-free trade and Ireland’s open borders, and the six tests set by Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit secretary, which insist a Brexit trade deal has to deliver “the exact same benefits” as the UK now has inside the single market and customs union.
But at a fringe event on Saturday, senior Scottish Labour figures including Dugdale criticised comments that Corbyn made in his speech to conference on Friday, when he said that a future Labour government would prevent employers “being able to import cheap agency labour, to undercut existing pay and conditions in the name of free market orthodoxy”.
Dugdale said the Labour party had “allowed the myths of EU immigration rules to be perpetuated by our own failures to take on these difficult arguments for decades”.
Ian Murray, the MP for Edinburgh South, who called for Sunday’s single market debate alongside Dugdale, went further, saying: “I’m disappointed that the Labour party is not making this argument – immigration is good for the United Kingdom and Scotland and we have to be brave enough to stand up and make that point.
“And I was incredibly disappointed to see yesterday that the only person smiling after that passage in Jeremy’s speech would have been Nigel Farage.”