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Scottish Labour’s leadership contest is turning ugly

The people’s flag is even deeper red in Scottish Labour, where the daggers are plunging in all directions amid a bloody leadership battle. 

Interim leader Alex Rowley has been secretly recorded admitting he backs left-wing candidate Richard Leonard, despite promising to remain neutral in the contest. It comes barely a week after Rowley’s turn as Fife’s answer to Mark Antony at First Minister’s Questions, where a jeremiad against millionaires was widely interpreted as a veiled denunciation of Anas Sarwar, the centrist candidate and a chap with a bob or two million to spare. 

The Rowley tape also contains a reference to ‘private discussions’ on the future of Kezia Dugdale, who has since departed as leader. It seems there was a plot against her after all but she spoiled it by going too soon and of her own accord. As a parting blow, though, she gave her then deputy Rowley just ten minutes’ notice before releasing her resignation to the media. 


The Sarwar camp is out for vengeance. Blairite enforcer Jackie Baillie fired off a quote to the hack pack that had to be handled with flame-retardent gloves when it landed. Rowley was guilty of ‘hypocrisy’, his behaviour was ‘incredibly disappointing’, he was part of ‘the party establishment’ and had committed ‘a complete betrayal of the membership and every value we hold dear’. 

As anyone in Scottish Labour will tell you, you don’t mess with the MSP for Dumbarton, home to the Faslane Naval Base. Trident nuclear missiles that could destroy all human life are the second most terrifying thing in Scotland. The first is Jackie Baillie, and it’s not even close. Still, Team Leonard had taken its porridge and issued a press statement denying any involvement by its candidate in the manifold skullduggery on the go. The email subject line? ‘Coment [sic] on latest jackie baillie pish’. 

Long-time observers of Labour’s diminished Pictish redoubts will be shocked at all this uncomradely behaviour. Scottish Labour politicians always stick together; it makes it easier to knife each other in the back. Vito Corleone taught his sons to keep their friends close but their enemies closer. The Godfather never encountered Scottish Labour, the original mafia, where you keep your friends close, your enemies closer, and the Sunday Herald on speed-dial. 

This is the sixth Scottish Labour leadership contest in a decade and easily the ugliest. Sarwar has come under sustained scrutiny over his shares in the family wholesale business and the firm’s employment terms. These are legitimate lines of attack from a tactical and even ethical point of view but I can’t shake a slight queasy feeling. For the first time, a Scots Asian is in with a real chance of leading a political party and an inordinate amount of time is being spent discussing cash ‘n’ carries and questionable business practices. Squishy political correctness on my part, perhaps. It’s not even a whiff so much as a whiff of a whiff but it’s there. 

In truth, it doesn’t matter whether Anas Sarwar or Richard Leonard emerges as the inheritor of the Scottish Labour crown. It is a puny diadem, despite Kezia Dugdale’s efforts to secure real autonomy for the party north of the border. Labour belongs to Jeremy Corbyn now, from its Berluti brogues to its clenched fist in the air. The Scottish contingent is as much a captive as the soft-left and since neither is brave enough to stand up to the thugocracy now running the party, they can only acquiesce and mutter and keep their heads down. 

Sarwar believes in nothing but has a knack for saying it with apparent conviction. Leonard will believe whatever Corbyn tells him to believe; it is in articulating his lines-to-take that he will find more difficulty. Neither will be the winner of this leadership race. That will be Nicola Sturgeon, who is facing trouble on her Left flank for the first time in years. Until now, that has taken the form of the cautious but organised Kezia Dugdale, who balanced social democratic rhetoric on economics with Unionist talk on the constitution. Jeremy Corbyn has no instinct for the Union, no feeling for it in his heart or gut. Whoever ends up his placeman in Holyrood, Corbyn will be calling the shots and it will be left to Ruth Davidson to speak up for Britain. 


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