Scottish Labour’s controversial caretaker leader has been urged to quit as the chair of an internal party panel which vets those seeking to vote in the leadership election between Richard Leonard and Anas Sarwar.
At last week’s meeting of his Scottish Labour Cabinet, Rowley was tackled by at least two of his frontbenchers, who told him his position on the so-called “verification panel” was no longer tenable.
They argued that the fact he had expressed a preference for Leonard to become leader meant that he could no longer be a neutral chair of the seven-person panel set up to ensure a fair contest.
The panel was established to prevent the election being skewed by weeding out rogue applications to become registered Scottish Labour supporters or party members.
Under Labour Party rules, party members, affiliated union members and registered supporters will be able to take part in the election. Those wanting to vote have until 9 October to either join the party at a fee of £4 per month or pay a one-off fee of £12 to become a registered supporter.
It has been reported that Unite, Labour’s biggest trade union supporter and a backer of Leonard, had signed up around 2,700 of its members in one weekend to its “political levy”, which must be paid if an individual wants a vote.
The verification panel was set up in an attempt to prevent the controversy that surrounded Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the top of the party when the UK Labour leadership election was infiltrated by Tories and non-Labour supporters.
At Thursday’s Shadow Cabinet meeting, Rowley apologised for indicating that he wanted Leonard to win. Rowley was secretly recorded saying Leonard was the “best candidate” during Labour’s UK conference at Brighton.
On tape Rowley revealed he had thought Leonard was the best candidate “for some time”, leading to claims of a left-wing plot to undermine Kezia Dugdale, whose resignation triggered the contest.
The Cabinet then moved on to discuss Rowley’s role as chair of the verification panel.
Last night a Labour insider said: “The question was raised, given his studied neutrality is now out the window and he is clearly being shown by his own comments to favour one candidate over another.
“It is important that he is seen to be unbiased on this, and his position as chair of the validation committee is just not appropriate. He was asked to stand down from that and he said he would reflect on it. In the circumstances I think that would be an entirely appropriate thing for him to do.
“Clearly Alex has been very partial through the view he has expressed, even though he didn’t expect it to be expressed publicly, and the mood of the Shadow Cabinet was that the apology was accepted but actually he now needs to step down from the panel. It is a clear conflict of interest.”
Another Labour source said: “This is another example of him compromising his own position when he said he would stay neutral, and he’s been caught not being neutral. It emphasises the problem with Rowley.
“There is definitely a clear conflict of interest. If you have him chairing this, surely that’s not a verification panel at all, or one that would be seen to be impartial.”
The verification panel would check applicants to vote by scouring their activity on social media, looking into their backgrounds and monitoring their email addresses to make sure they would make suitable Labour members or supporters.
The process aims to weed out members of other parties and people who have breached Labour rules in the past, and make sure applicants share the party’s values.
The verification panel was created to prevent the sort of controversy that marred Corbyn’s first election as UK Labour leader in 2015.
The integrity of the contest was questioned after suspicions that it had been hijacked by Green activists, members of parties to the left of Labour and Conservative saboteurs who paid a modest fee to become registered Labour supporters in a bid to get Corbyn in.
The latest bout of Scottish Labour infighting comes at the end of a damaging week for the party. Rowley’s admission that he favoured Leonard saw former Labour MP Gemma Doyle call for him to resign as deputy leader.
Meanwhile, Leonard’s spin doctor Stephen Low stood down from his post after he responded to claims that Kezia Dugdale was the victim of a plot by describing them as “pish”.
Leonard is regarded as the front runner in the contest, having secured the backing of all affiliated trade unions who have made their preference known.
Sarwar has endured a difficult campaign so far, facing questions over his decision to send his children to the fee-paying Hutchesons’ Grammar in Glasgow. He has also been criticised for his family’s firm United Wholesale (Scotland)’s failure to recognise unions and its failure to pay all staff the real living wage. Sarwar has relinquished his multi-million pound stake in the business.
Rowley was unavailable for comment yesterday.