Richard Leonard should stand up to the Labour party in London over the defamation case against Kezia Dugdale, writes Tom Peterkin.
Kezia Dugdale may no longer be the leader of Scottish Labour but she has retained a knack for grabbing the headlines.
Perhaps it should be no surprise that the Lothians MSP has failed to slide unobtrusively to the relative obscurity of the backbenches. She is, after all, the politician who decided that drinking an ostrich anus smoothie with a bunch of Z-listers in the jungle was preferable to supping from the poisoned chalice that became the Scottish Labour leadership.
But unlike her controversial (and lucrative) appearance on ITV’s “I’m a Celebrity”, the latest stushie to engulf Ms Dugdale is not one she wished upon herself.
As her recent outbursts demonstrate, the £25,000 defamation action she faces from the pro-independence blogger Stuart Campbell is a complication that is causing her much anxiety.
Aside for the personal toll the legal action is taking on Ms Dugdale, her travails have serious repercussions for her successor Richard Leonard.
Ms Dugdale’s defamation drama is rapidly turning into Mr Leonard’s leadership crisis.
The turn of events that has raised questions about Mr Leonard’s stewardship of the party is a convoluted tale that has its origins in a column written by Ms Dugdale for the Daily Record.
In one of her weekly contributions to the tabloid newspaper, Ms Dugdale described a tweet posted by Mr Campbell, the author of the “Wings Over Scotland” website, as “homophobic”. Mr Campbell’s tweet referred to the Tory MSP Oliver Mundell, the son of David Mundell, the Scottish Secretary who revealed that he was homosexual around two and a half years ago. According to Mr Campbell’s tweet, Oliver Mundell was “the sort of public speaker that makes you wish his dad had embraced his sexuality sooner”.
Mr Campbell took umbrage at Ms Dugdale’s characterisation, denies his remarks were homophobic and is set to challenge the Labour MSP in court.
As those who have been following this saga closely know, the Daily Record offered Ms Dugdale legal support when Mr Campbell’s action was launched. But then the newspaper’s lawyers met with Labour officials, who were adamant that the party should deal with it. Labour took on an agency, assembled a team of lawyers and told the Record to step aside.
Things began to go awry for Ms Dugdale when it was revealed that, after paying out £94,000, the UK Labour party had decided to stop paying Ms Dugdale’s legal costs. She gave a series of interviews in which she talked about feeling crushed by her own party. Should the case go against her, she revealed she feared losing her house or even going bankrupt – an outcome that would cost the Labour MSP her job. Jeremy Corbyn was accused of ignoring her approaches for help as she suggested the decision was down to Jenny Formby, Labour’s new general secretary who happens to be close to the UK leader. This unseemly row was the cue for all manner of internal wrangling with allies of Ms Dugdale questioning why Labour was abandoning one of their own, mid court case. In response, the UK party has said it has a responsibility to all its members to spend party funds responsibly – the suggestion being that the cash would be better spent on campaigning in anticipation of another snap election.
Since Labour pulled the plug on financing Ms Dugdale’s case, the Daily Record has said it has “reinstated” legal support for the former Scottish leader, although reports suggest Ms Dugdale could remain liable for Mr Campbell’s damages and costs should she lose.
Regardless of if and how Ms Dugdale’s costs are met, there is an important point of principle at stake here. Surely a political party should back its politicians to the hilt, particularly when being challenged by an online opponent who specialises in highly provocative blogs.
But to the dismay of many Labour MSPs, Mr Leonard’s has remained tight-lipped about the whole sorry state of affairs. His silence reached deafening levels at a meeting of MSPs this week where Ms Dugdale’s supporters clashed with a noisy minority of left-wing members who are said to back the decision to halt the legal funding.
Apparently Mr Leonard asked Ms Formby to reverse the decision, but was given short shrift. It is not a good look for an elected leader, if he is unable to change the mind of a paid official. Furthermore, the Scottish Labour leader asked for a statement indicating his MSPs’ support for Ms Dugdale to be altered so that it did not include a specific call for the party to meet her full legal costs.
None of this bodes well for Mr Leonard’s leadership. Whatever one’s views of Ms Dugdale – and it is true to say she is not everybody’s cup of ostrich anus smoothie – she deserves much better than this.
Granted there are those who found her resignation as party leader and jungle-antics unhelpful. But this is an effective and elected LGBT Labour politician who stepped up to the leadership when few others wanted the toughest job in Scottish politics. For that, she should receive credit and protection.
By failing to stand up for his predecessor, Mr Leonard does little to dispell the notion that he is in thrall to Mr Corbyn and his party is little more than a “branch office” of London.
And what of the left’s much-vaunted commitment to solidarity? As one Labour MSP put it: “This should be about solidarity, rather than hanging someone out to dry.”