Scotland politics

Scottish Labour MSPs embroiled in row over leadership 'plot'

Kezia Dugdale Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Scottish Labour MSPs have traded barbs over claims of a plot against the leadership of Kezia Dugdale

A war of words has erupted at the top of Scottish Labour over claims of a "plot" to undermine former leader Kezia Dugdale.

Ms Dugdale told the BBC there had been a "lot of internal problems" in the party ahead of her sudden resignation.

Her allies have claimed there was a "plot" against her after interim leader Alex Rowley was caught on tape backing leadership candidate Richard Leonard.

The row unfolded as Jeremy Corbyn spoke at the Labour conference in Brighton.

During his speech, Mr Corbyn said that Labour was "on the way back in Scotland", and thanked Ms Dugdale for her work.

The dispute, which has involved several of the party's most prominent MSPs, has been thrown into the spotlight by the contest between Mr Leonard and Anas Sarwar to succeed Ms Dugdale as Scottish Labour leader.

'Internal problems'

Ms Dugdale quit in August, with her deputy Mr Rowley subsequently revealing that he was only given ten minutes notice of the move.

Speaking on BBC Radio Five Live, Ms Dugdale confirmed this was true, and added: "I'm sure lots of people will be thinking, wow, that speaks to a lot of internal problems in the Labour party. They'd be right."

She also said she had quit as leader because "it frees me up to talk about things I'm passionate about", such as Brexit, noting that "I wasn't able to do that as leader of the Scottish Labour Party, because at that point my job was to hold everybody together".

And she denied she had been pushed out of the role by opponents, saying: "I wasn't bullied out of my position, I did this very much on my own terms".

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The row unfolded even as Jeremy Corbyn made his speech at the Labour conference in Brighton

However, Mr Rowley has faced accusations of being involved in a plot to replace Ms Dugdale with Mr Leonard - who like Mr Rowley is on the left of the party.

The interim leader vowed not to endorse either candidate in the leadership race, but was caught on tape prior to a conference fringe event saying that Mr Leonard was "the best candidate".

Mr Rowley was unaware he was being recorded, but the Scottish Sun quoted him as saying: "Although I'm neutral in the leadership, I also believe that Richard Leonard has everything that we need to win in 2021. I really do.

"So when, to our surprise, the job became vacant, it just seemed to me that from a left perspective the person that was most suited to do that job would be Richard Leonard.

'Complete betrayal'

Mr Rowley - whose daughter Danielle, a Labour MP, is running Mr Leonard's campaign - also said party figures "privately didn't believe Kezia would be there" for the next Holyrood election in 2021, saying that "our view was that Richard was the best person and therefore we should go with that plan".

He also said he had been a backer of Mr Leonard "for some time now", but stressed that "we certainly weren't putting any pressure on it".

His comments were described as "hypocrisy" and "incredibly disappointing" by fellow Labour MSP Jackie Baillie, a backer of Mr Sarwar - who is seen as being the centrist candidate and has been a critic of Jeremy Corbyn in the past.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Alex Rowley was secretly recorded saying that Mr Leonard was "the best candidate" for the party leadership

Ms Baillie said there was "evidence of a plot going on behind the scenes for months" against Ms Dugdale's leadership, calling this "a complete betrayal of the membership and every value we hold dear".

She later told BBC Scotland: "Richard Leonard may deny this, but there are people within his campaign team who have clearly been involved. I think Richard would want to distance himself from them."

This was echoed by another Sarwar-backing MSP, Daniel Johnson, who said that the "admission of a plot is shocking and unacceptable". However Ms Baillie's comments were in turn decried by Leonard-supporting MSP Neil Findlay as "barrel-scraping desperation".

The party's MPs were also drawn into the row, with Martin Whitfield saying Mr Leonard had "questions to answer" over the affair, while Ms Rowley insisted that her father had "always been very supportive" of Ms Dugdale.

A spokesman for Mr Leonard's campaign team said: "If there were any attempts to undermine Kezia - they did not involve Richard and he knew nothing of them. Any statements that he did are completely false."

A Scottish Labour spokesman said: "Alex was having what he believed to be a private conversation with a student and a political activist. He has not and will not publicly back a candidate.

"He has no intention of relinquishing his role as interim leader of the Labour Party in Scotland until after the current leadership contest is over."

'Unifying message'

Mr Sarwar's campaign has been dogged by controversy over his family's company, which saw him relinquish his shares after criticism from opponents including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

The rival camps issued comments over the leadership row even as Mr Corbyn was making his keynote speech to the party's UK conference in Brighton.

Mr Corbyn insisted Labour was "on the way back in Scotland, becoming once again the champion of social justice".

He added: "Thank you Kezia, and thank you Alex. And whoever next leads Scottish Labour - our unifying socialist message will continue to inspire both south and north of the border."

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