WITH most of Scotland looking forward to the predicted thaw that promises to bring an end to this long Scandinavian-style winter we’ve shivered through, I suspect there is one man who would gladly welcome a return of the Beast from the East.

Richard Leonard must surely be anxious about facing this week’s spring Scottish Labour conference. First, because he hasn’t exactly set his party’s fortunes alight over these three months since he was elected party leader. Most recent polls show a slump in Labour’s fortunes over that short time. With the SNP a resounding 15 points ahead, even after 10 years in power, it’s easy to forget that back in 2007 the gap between the two parties in the Holyrood constituency vote was just over half of one per cent.

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The other reason why Richard would probably rather spend next weekend receiving root canal treatment in the dentist’s chair than facing the delegates in Dundee’s Caird Hall is the looming factional confrontation over Brexit.

According to press reports, 10 motions have been tabled backing single market membership. And now we hear that three members of Labour’s old guard – Kezia Dugdale, Ian Murray and Catherine Stihler – have set up an organised challenge to both the UK and Scottish leadership in the form of the new Scottish Labour for the Single Market campaign group.

On nine issues out of 10, I wouldn’t have much sympathy for Kezia and her allies, who represent the liberal, free-market wing of the party. But on this, they accidentally have some democratic legitimacy on their side.

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Why do I say “accidentally”? Because the democratic legitimacy of their campaign derives from the fact that 62 per cent of the Scottish electorate voted to remain in the European Union. Yet all three are unionists who support the United Kingdom and campaigned hard in 2014 to stop Scotland carving its own path forward. As a result, we are handcuffed to Westminster as the UK Government charges headlong towards the edge of the cliff.

In that context, it is right for politicians in Scotland to do what they can do minimise the damage to the people they represent. And if that puts them on the right side, even by accident, then fair enough.

But it poses a huge problem for Richard Leonard. No matter how loudly it claims otherwise, Scottish Labour is just a cog in a unitary, centralised machine where the rules are made elsewhere, and the purse strings are controlled from London.

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Scottish Labour has no meaningful autonomy when it comes to the big issues. There is no provision for a separate Scottish manifesto in a UK general election. And when Scottish Labour does diverge on a reserved matter – as it has done over Trident – it is powerless to do anything about.

Its autonomy is no more effective than that of a local branch within any political party, which can pass a meaningless resolution while the bigwigs at the top carry on regardless. When Jeremy Corbyn dithers over the EU, so too does Richard Leonard. And when Jeremy calls for a customs union outside the single market, so too does Richard. That’s the essence of what it means to be the Scottish leader of a unionist party.

Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, could conceivably launch a campaign to keep the UK in the single market, and it would have a huge impact on the whole dynamic of Brexit. But he will never do so, I fear, for one overriding reason that can be summed up in a single word. Immigration. Because that, more than any other issue, was at the core of Brexit.

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People did not vote Leave because they were concerned about the undemocratic powers of the European Commission, or about competition law or restrictions on public ownership. In fact, many EU countries have more extensive public ownership and stronger trade union rights than we have in the UK. Leavers voted for Brexit in the main because they were bombarded by a daily avalanche of xenophobia from the right-wing press and from Tory and Ukip politicians.

And yet immigration has become, to use the cliché, the elephant in the room. Every day, news and current affairs programmes pore over the finer points of the process, while details debate the detail of the intricate Brexit negotiations. But these days, one word is missing.

Yet immigration is the primary reason why Labour has come down in favour of a customs union rather than the Norway option of single market membership. The rest is spin.

Backing a customs union is the ideal solution. It differentiates Labour from the Tories while still precluding free movement of people.

Throughout his long political career, Jeremy Corbyn has been nothing if not courageous. He knows what it’s like to be savaged in the press for being ahead of his time on issues like gay rights, gender equality and dialogue in Northern Ireland.

But now, presumably for fear that he might blow his Prime Ministerial prospects, he seems to have lost his bottle. Instead of facing down the Tory and tabloid anti-immigration brigade, he looks like he is running scared.

At a time when clarity is needed to take the Tories to pieces, Labour now seems intent on muddying the waters. Richard Leonard, for example, in a recent speech, “blamed the EU for low pay”, to quote a Sunday Times headline. Although he did not explicitly blame migrants, there are plenty who do – and will interpret such headlines accordingly.

But either way, it’s nonsense. Denmark, Germany, Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, Ireland, Austria and Norway (which is not in the EU but has free movement of people) all have substantially higher wages than the UK – and that’s in real terms, when the cost of living is taken into account.

It’s just not good enough for a Labour leader to shift the blame for low pay and declining living standards from Westminster to Brussels. Over decades, the UK has been ahead of most of Europe and the wider world in driving down wages and working conditions.

It has been complicit in wiping out millions of skilled jobs, decimating trade union rights, transferring public services to privatised cowboys and driving up house prices and rents by creating a shortage of affordable homes. That’s why millions of working families across the UK are struggling to make ends meet. To blame the EU for low pay in the UK is to turn reality upside down.

No-one today – not even the Tory Brexiteers – are seriously predicting a new age of prosperity. The whole debate is now about damage limitation.

And if that damage is as extensive as I fear, those who prevaricated today and allowed the Tories a clear path to proceed unchallenged may end up so far out in the cold as to make the Beast from the East feel like a spell of spring sunshine.