Anas Sarwar has said Labour should shift its policy on the European Union by moving the UK much closer to the single market, distancing himself from Keir Starmer’s refusal to renegotiate Brexit.
The newly elected Scottish Labour leader said he would urge Starmer to agree to much closer links with the EU nearer to the next general election in an effort to rebuild Labour’s appeal to Scottish voters.
“I support the EU; I want us to have as close a relationship with the European Union as possible. I have been advocating for us to have greater alignment around the single market and customs union ever since the UK voted to leave the union,” Sarwar told the Guardian.
Sarwar, who won the leadership contest on Saturday with 57.6% of the overall vote, said his party faced a huge battle to rebuild support in Scotland. Although support for independence has ebbed in the last three polls, they still show Labour in third behind the Scottish National party and Tories, with 10 weeks until May’s election.
Sturgeon is expected to make rejoining the EU and independence central to the SNP’s election campaign. Numerous polls show that Labour voters switched support to the Scottish National party before Brexit was completed because of Nicola Sturgeon’s explicit support for the European Union; backing for independence also surged after Boris Johnson became prime minister.
Referring to Starmer’s decision to accept Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal in order to woo back “red wall”, pro-Brexit voters in northern England, Sarwar said Scotland would be better off if the country had much closer links to the EU.
In a clear warning to Starmer, Sarwar said Scotland was “the original red wall”. It was where Labour’s vote first collapsed and without a significant recovery for the party in Scotland Starmer would be unable to win the next general election.
That did not mean independence was the answer, he said. “I still want Scotland to have as close alignment as possible with the EU but the idea that Scottish independence is a light-switch moment, that is not going to be chaotic, that it isn’t going to take time, and it isn’t going to create more division, is just not credible.
“Brexit was bad for Scotland, but independence would be an amplifier, a multiplier of the negatives of Brexit.”
Sarwar acknowledged Labour risked alienating Jewish voters after he was described on Saturday as the first ethnic minority leader in a major UK party. There were complaints that excluded Jewish politicians such as Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader, Michael Howard, once the Tory leader, and Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century prime minister.
“I do not want us for a moment to downplay the significant achievements of the Jewish community in Scotland and across the UK,” he said. “I was of course meaning in terms of colour, in terms of Asian background and Muslim heritage. I’m very pleased to clarify that.”
Sarwar said the party’s main priority after the May election should be tackling the Covid crisis and prioritising economic recovery, alongside rebuilding public services, education and hospitals. He proposed an “education recovery plan” to offer children catch-up classes over the summer.
He said that recovery included a concerted attack on rising rates of child poverty, and agreed with the SNP that an increase in universal credit payments introduced temporarily due to the pandemic should be made permanent.
The SNP accused Labour’s shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds of failing to accept the case for that during her BBC interview on Sunday with Andrew Marr. Sarwar said the SNP-run Scottish government should also immediately double the £10 a week Scottish child payment, given to families getting Best Start early years grants.
“We should increase the rate of universal credit. We have got more and more families being pushed into poverty and that is not acceptable. I would love us to do that across the UK,” he said.
“Child poverty is increasing under the SNP and the Tories. It’s all very well political parties in government giving pledges on ending child poverty but they’re in power right now, and child poverty is on the rise. And that’s not acceptable.”
He added, however, that the Brexit and Covid crises had exposed serious problems with the UK’s governance and democratic accountability. “I think the UK does need major reform and major surgery. I think the UK is in many ways broken and not working for people,” he said.
“I think people in Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester and Cardiff feel that disconnect. I think people in Scotland feel that disconnect too. So I think we do need to prioritise reforming the UK, and the Covid recovery.
“The next UK election is still quite a while away and as we head into that election I will be having lots of conversations with Keir and with other colleagues, and arguing for what I believe is in the best interests of Scotland.”