THE issue of race has now forced itself into the battle for who will be the next leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Last night, sources in Scottish Labour were briefing the media that more than 1000 Asian members have joined the party since nominations for the contest between Anas Sarwar and Richard Leonard opened less than a month ago. Party sources claimed members had been signed up “to edge it for Anas”.

The Sunday Herald has learned that 1600 people joined Labour after the party’s contest was announced in August and nominations opened on September 11. Tomorrow is the final deadline to join and be eligible to take part in the ballot. Voting papers will be sent out later this month. However, 1200 of those who have been added to Labour’s membership list had “Asian sounding names”, according to a party source. Scottish Labour is understood to currently have about 25,000 members.

Last night, a party source suggested members of the Asian community had been recruited by Sarwar’s supporters to vote in what is expected to be a tight contest. “Reports of recruitment have been circulating in a number of constituency parties and people are obviously very concerned that there should be rigorous checking of it...People know what’s going on, the only question is whether it will be enough to edge it for Anas,” the source said.

Asked about the recruitment of Asian members, Sarwar’s campaign hailed a growth in membership. A spokesman said: “It’s extremely encouraging if so many people have joined the Labour Party and we encourage anyone who shares our values to sign up and have their say before tomorrow’s deadline. Labour is revitalised in Scotland and if new members want to transform that energy into power then they need to vote for Anas Sarwar.”

A spokesperson from Scottish Labour’s HQ said: “The Labour Party is a democratic party open to members of all backgrounds. Every day new members are joining us as they are inspired by our vision for a country that works for the many, not the few.”

Leonard’s campaign refused to comment on the claims when approached. Sarwar’s campaign has been dogged by a series of controversies about his wealth and lifestyle. He agreed to dispose of his stake in UWS, believed to be worth around £4.8 million, after the Sunday Herald revealed that some staff are paid below the real living wage and admitted there is no trade union recognition at the company. Sarwar has also faced ongoing criticism for sending his children to private school.

The latest row came as he said he supports permanently remaining in the single market. Sarwar called on Scottish Tory MPs to help vote down a bad Brexit deal. The MSP said it would be a “calamity” if the party loses membership of the single market and said voting to trigger Article 50 was a “mistake”. He criticised his party colleagues, including his leadership rival Richard Leonard, who defied the party whip and joined the Tories to back triggering Article 50 in a symbolic vote at Holyrood in February.

In a speech that set out a dividing line with Leonard, Sarwar said: “We need a leader who fights a Tory hard Brexit, not one who backs them on hard Brexit.” In response, Leonard said: “The result of the referendum must be respected but the focus should now be on protecting jobs, worker and social rights.”