Scottish Labour hopeful calls for radical shift back to state ownership

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Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leadership candidate backed by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, has called for Scottish railways, renewable energy firms and oilfields to be taken into public ownership.

Leonard said he believed Labour needed to embrace a more radical programme of state ownership, replacing private financing of roads and schools with public contracts and allowing councils more freedom to raise local taxes.

“I think what we need are some pretty radical changes,” he said. “[We] should be prepared to say we’re willing to look at measures that shift ownership of the economy back into public ownership.”

A former policy officer with the GMB union, Leonard said he was a more credible candidate than Anas Sarwar, his rival for the Scottish Labour post, because he had always supported the socialist policies Corbyn has championed as the UK party’s leader.

He refused to directly attack Sarwar, a centrist who has been painted by critics as a careerist, but said: “I think I best represent the most credible advocate of that kind of appeal that the Labour party has got. I think what differentiates me [from Sarwar] is the consistency of my position.”

Sarwar is seen as favourite to win the contest partly because Scottish Labour members backed the centrist Owen Smith when he challenged Corbyn’s leadership last year.

The contest has been forced on Scottish Labour by the surprise resignation last week of Kezia Dugdale, the party’s sixth Scottish leader in a decade.

The campaign will begin after Labour’s Scottish executive committee (SEC) meets on Saturday to agree its rules, starting a race by the left to recruit thousands of pro-Corbyn supporters, some of whom voted for Scottish independence in 2014.

The SEC is expected to allow 25 days for new members to join for £10 each. Unlike in England and Wales, Scottish Labour has not seen a steep surge in membership since the rise of Corbyn in 2015. It now has about 22,000 full members and 9,000 affiliates.

Sarwar, a former deputy leader of Scottish Labour, has swung behind Corbyn 12 months after signing a letter calling on him to quit as leader. He organised a packed meeting for Corbyn at Glasgow central mosque last month, earning plaudits from the leader’s office.

Labour officials say Corbyn is highly unlikely to openly endorse either candidate, but his supporters in Scotland – particularly the Campaign for Socialism (CfS), a near equivalent to the Momentum caucus inside the UK Labour party – have swung heavily behind Leonard.

That has fuelled speculation that Scottish Labour will repeat the feuding that beset the party at Westminster and in some English constituency parties, further weakening its support among Scottish centre-left voters being wooed by Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish National party leader.

Leonard rejected those predictions, insisting he had always worked with the party’s centrists. He said he backed calls for the UK to become a federal state and, unlike other Corbyn supporters, had voted for remain in last year’s EU referendum.

“I don’t believe in factions because with factions come labels, and I don’t want to be pigeon-holed,” he said. “I do see myself on the left of the party and a democratic socialist, so I will work with those people that wish to pursue that kind of change in society and that includes people from all wings of the Labour party.”

Implying that he believed Dugdale’s leadership had been too cautious, Leonard said Labour had been too focused on a managerial style of politics and scared of taking risks or endorsing anything with cost implications.

Both Leonard and Sarwar are expected to face questions over their backgrounds. Both men were privately educated and Sarwar’s children go to his old fee-paying school in Glasgow. Leonard said he was given a free scholarship funded by his local council after passing an entrance exam.

Leonard would also be the first English leader of the Scottish Labour party if he wins. “These are things I can’t change,” Leonard said. “So people need to accept that and make their own judgments based upon it.”

Sturgeon, bruised by a difficult election where the SNP lost 21 seats, including six to Labour, set out an ambitious programme of new policies on Tuesday, including pledges to discuss possible tax rises with Labour and to set up a national investment bank, a policy pushed by Corbyn at the June election.

Leonard said he welcomed some policies but added: “There were some elements which had immediate and superficial appeal but we need to see the detail. They’ve announced a Scottish investment bank over and over again but we have yet to see anything worthy of the name.”

He said ScotRail should be taken into public ownership at the end of the current contract, owned by the Dutch state railway Abellio.

The government should also invest in energy industries, acquiring strategic stakes in ageing North Sea oil and gas fields and in renewable energy, Leonard said.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Severin Carrell Scotland editor, for theguardian.com on Thursday 7th September 2017 06.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010