RICHARD Leonard “made a mistake” by setting out his opposition to a future independence referendum, an ally of Jeremy Corbyn has warned.

Former Labour minister Les Huckfield suggested Leonard was likely to lose support by attacking independence, because it would put off potential supporters who were Yes voters.

The Central Scotland MSP is being backed by the pro-Corbyn left-wing group Campaign for Socialism, which believes he is the candidate more likely to strengthen the party’s position north of the Border by luring former Labour voters back from the SNP.

But over the weekend Leonard, who is running against fellow Labour MSP Anas Sarwar for the leadership post, sent out a social media message underlining his support for Scotland to remain in the UK.

His statement, posted on Twitter, said: “For the avoidance of doubt, let me make it clear. There will be no ground ceded to nationalism at the expense of progressive socialism under my leadership.

“No coalition, pacts or deals with the SNP. And no second independence referendum.”

Leonard supporter Huckfield, who backs independence, said he was surprised at Leonard’s statement.

“I don’t know the basis of the advice Richard is receiving. I’m not quite sure what the basis of his statement was. I must say I was a little surprised when I saw it on Twitter,” he said.

“I think Richard will lose some support for doing that.”

He added: “I think it would be a mistake to focus the campaign on independence. Jeremy got a very good vote in Scotland but that wasn’t based on arguments against independence, that was based on Jeremy’s appeal to voters.

“I would have thought there was a bigger vote to be had based on supporting Jeremy and the Labour party’s policies. I would have thought that would be the basis of a bigger vote rather than attacking independence and the SNP.”

Tommy Sheppard, the SNP MSP, believed it was a “foolish” strategic move by Leonard that would benefit the SNP and Scottish Greens.

The former deputy general secretary of Scottish Labour told The National: “It seems incredibly foolish of any candidate in an election to immediately not only ignore but belittle potential core support.

“There is no doubt that there were quite a number of people in Scotland who were attracted to vote Labour in June because of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership ... who also voted Yes in 2014 and who still support the idea of an independent Scotland.

“To turn round and upset all those people seems to me to be incredibly stupid. But long may they do it as they will just drive those people back to the SNP and Scottish Greens and others who embrace both social and economic change, and the democratic change that comes with independence.

“It would be very difficult for Sarwar to appeal to that new layer of Labour support because he is so intimately linked with the Better Together campaign, and the fact Leonard has closed that down is going to really annoy potential supporters in their thousands.”

He added: “It looks like the two candidates are going to get into a debate to see who is now the most Unionist which frankly I don’t think is what people who look to the Labour Party need.”

As the debate focused on the constitution Sarwar, whose campaign has been hit over his decision to send his children to a private school as well as his family’s business interests, will again today underline his Unionist credentials.

“I was proud to campaign to keep Scotland in the UK in 2014, travelling the country in the ‘United With Labour’ bus to speak to thousands of voters, and writing Labour’s red paper on our vision of solidarity, equality and social justice,” he will say.

“As a socialist I will never apologise for opposing nationalism, and the Labour Party should never apologise.

“We fought for Scotland’s place in the UK because of our Labour values, not despite our Labour values. I thank every single Labour member and supporter who campaigned in that referendum, often in the face of hostility from nationalists.”

Sarwar added: “As a party we must accept some voters turned away from us because they didn’t trust us to protect Scotland’s place in the UK. That’s why, under my leadership, voters will know that our support for Scotland’s place in the UK will never be in doubt.”