Scottish Labour was is embroiled in civil war after open hostilities erupted between the two contenders for the party leadership.
Deputy leader Alex Rowley found himself at the centre of accusations of a “plot” to destabilise former leader Kezia Dugdale after a recording emerged of the Fife MSP in which he appeared to back left-winger Richard Leonard.
But the “plot” claims by party economy spokeswoman Jackie Baillie were derided as “pish” in a press release issued by Mr Leonard’s campaign team.
Ms Baillie, who is a high-profile backer of rival candidate Anas Sarwar for the leadership, was then accused of “desperate barrel scraping” by senior left-winger Neil Findlay.
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Ms Dugdale even stepped into the row by admitting that it showed the extent of the “internal problems” facing Scottish Labour.
The infighting emerged as UK party leader Jeremy Corbyn appealed for unity and claimed his party was “on its way back” in Scotland during his keynote address to close Labour’s autumn conference in Brighton.
Mr Rowley, who vowed to stay neutral in the race to replace Ms Dugdale, is heard in the recording obtained by the Sun a daily newspaper to favour Mr Leonard over Mr Sarwar. He also indicates that he had been involved in “private discussions” with colleagues about the prospect of Ms Dugdale’s departure by 2021, although he was “surprised” that she announced her resignation earlier this month.
Ms Baillie said: “Alex Rowley’s hypocrisy is incredibly disappointing. But what is most concerning is the revelations about a plot against Kezia Dugdale.
“Kez was elected with a huge majority and it will infuriate members to learn that some MSPs were working behind the scenes to undermine her and replace her with Richard Leonard.
“Richard must urgently answer questions about his role in this plot.
“This behaviour by the party establishment is a complete betrayal of the membership and every value we hold
Mr Rowley’s daughter, Danielle, is heading up Mr Leonard’s leadership campaign team.
Mr Findlay, who is supporting Mr Leonard, described Ms Baillie’s statement as “barrel-scraping desperation”.
He added: “The feedback from members is that it’s Richard’s campaign that looks like the change we need.”
A statement on the row was then issued by Mr Leonard’s campaign team under the heading “Coment (sic) on the latest pish from Jackie Baillie.”
It added: “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.”
The party’s troubles are likely to come under the spotlight today at Holyrood when Mr Rowley, the current interim leader, faces Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions.
Ms Dugdale, who resigned last month, earlier confirmed that her deputy Mr Rowley had only been informed of her decision ten minutes before it was announced.
She told aBBC Radio 5 Live radio channel: “I’m sure there’s lots of people thinking ‘wow, that speaks to a lot of internal problems in the Labour party’, and they would be right.”
But she insisted that she was not bullied out of the position.
Ms Dugdale always had a tense relationship with Mr Rowley, who was a close ally of former prime minister Gordon Brown, during their time at the helm of the party.
When Ms Dugdale called on Mr Corbyn to stand down during his leadership battle with Owen Smith last year, it met with a terse response from Mr Rowley who called for unity behind the UK leader.
A spokesman for Scottish Labour 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.”
It marks a new low in the relations between the two candidates in the race to be named the new Labour leader north of the Border in two months’ time.
Mr Leonard has already positioned himself of the torchbearer for the “Corbynista” message north of the Border and seems favourite to win after securing the support of the major trades unions.
Mr Sarwar, though, has support more than half of the party’s MSPs group at Holyrood.
Last week Mr Rowley was forced to deny he had deliberately set Mr Sarwar up during First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood, after his reference to “millionaires” allowed Ms Sturgeon to attack the leadership candidate for his personal wealth.
Labour’s troubles were seized on by their political opponents last night.
SNP MSP Sandra White said: “With the Labour leadership campaign barely out of the starting blocks both factions are fighting like cats in a sack – it’s astonishing.
“It’s hard to imagine how Richard Leonard could command the respect of the party when senior MSPs are accusing him of a ‘complete betrayal’ of Labour values.
“And Alex Rowley’s authority as interim leader is now completely undermined.
“Once again, the bitter divisions within Labour are never far from the surface.”
A spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives said: “People already had their suspicions about Alex Rowley after last week’s FMQs stitch-up.
“This confirms he’s right behind Richard Leonard’s extremist drive to drag Scottish politics even further to the left.
“With another leadership race descending into farce, it’s no wonder voters have left Scottish Labour in their droves.”