Tom Peterkin: Choosing a Labour leader is a very dirty business

What is it about Labour politicians and recording devices? Everyone remembers Gordon Brown's hideously embarrassing rant at the expense of Gillian Duffy that was unwittingly captured on tape and put paid to his 2010 general election hopes.

The two candidates for the leadership of Scottish Labour - Richard Leonard, left, and Anas Sarwar, right. A victory for Leonard would be seen as a victory for Corbynistas.
The two candidates for the leadership of Scottish Labour - Richard Leonard, left, and Anas Sarwar, right. A victory for Leonard would be seen as a victory for Corbynistas.
The two candidates for the leadership of Scottish Labour - Richard Leonard, left, and Anas Sarwar, right. A victory for Leonard would be seen as a victory for Corbynistas.

Those with longer memories may recall Helen Liddell and Henry McLeish caught in a similar situation in 2001 when they too forgot to remove microphones while they traded indiscreet observations about their colleagues.

The latest figure to fall foul of the curse of the microphone is Alex Rowley, well-known Brown acolyte from the Kingdom of Fife and current caretaker leader of Scottish Labour following the resignation of Kezia Dugdale.

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Despite his position requiring him to remain neutral on the question of who will replace Ms Dugdale, a recording of his unguarded remarks reveal a somewhat different stance.

Yesterday the tape of a chat which Mr Rowley had with an activist at Labour’s UK conference in Brighton somehow made it into the public domain. In the conversation, Mr Rowley made clear what many claim to have known or at least suspected: that his preference would be for the left-wing Richard Leonard over the more moderate Anas Sarwar. According to Mr Rowley’s taped reflections on the leadership battle, he has thought “for some time” that Mr Leonard would be the best candidate to beat the SNP.

Furthermore, Mr Rowley made it clear that the left-wing faction within Scottish Labour had been looking to Mr Leonard as the successor to Ms Dugdale even before her unexpected resignation last month.

A full flown internal spat erupted when Jackie Baillie, one of Mr Sarwar’s key allies, accused Mr Rowley of plotting against Ms Dugdale.

The tape recording also had the effect of fuelling intriguing theories that Mr Rowley deliberately set up Nicola Sturgeon at last week’s First Minister’s Questions when he accused the SNP – through its tax policies – of siding with the “millionaires rather than the millions”.

It was his use of the word “millionaire” which served up a juicy lob for Ms Sturgeon. She duly smashed the ball in the direction of Mr Sarwar by assuming that Mr Rowley was referring to the wealthy leadership contender and went on to attack his family firm for failing to pay the living wage. Mr Rowley distanced himself from such Machiavellian tactics. But the existence of tape-recorded evidence that Mr Rowley wants Mr Leonard to win, will convince some that the Prince of Darkness is alive and well and lives somewhere near Cowdenbeath.

Talk of scheming and plotting is a reminder that politics is a dirty business. Nowhere is this more true than in the internal squabblings of the Scottish Labour Party. But despite outrage from Mr Sarwar’s supporters at this latest turn of events, it is impossible to escape the impression that this is a contest, which is running away from the moderates.

For someone as ambitious as Mr Sarwar there must be deep dismay at the way his bid appears to be heading towards the rocks.

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At the heart of this has been Mr Sarwar’s failure to deal with difficult questions about his business background and his decision to educate his children privately.

On the latter issue, it is natural that parents want the best for their children – in this case the Hutcheson’s Grammar education enjoyed by Mr Sarwar himself. Many will sympathise with Mr Sarwar’s decision, but given his party’s commitment to the state system it was going to create problems as soon as he announced his bid for the leadership.

Mr Sarwar has also struggled to answer criticisms of the way his family has done business. He has failed to give convincing answers when tackled about the Sarwar’s United Wholesale (Scotland) Ltd cash-and-carry business’s failure to recognise trade unions and its controversial pay structure.

Mr Sarwar has been under fire after it emerged the company was advertising for jobs paying £7.50 an hour, a rate that coincides with the legal minimum wage but less than the voluntary £8.45 an hour living wage promoted by anti poverty campaigners including Labour. At the weekend, Mr Sarwar sought to limit the damage caused by his association with the firm by relinquishing his £4.8 million stake in the business, leaving his shares in a trust for his children.

That’s all very well, but it did little to answer the original criticisms made about the firm and merely added to the impression that this is a leadership candidate on the back foot. It is this sort of thing that must make Scottish Labour supporters wary when contemplating a future with Mr Sarwar at the helm. Ms Sturgeon gave them a glimpse into that particular crystal ball when she taunted him at First Minister’s Questions last week.

The contest doesn’t close until 17 November so there is time for Mr Sarwar to turn things around. But with the trade unions coalescing around Mr Leonard, his prospects are not good.

At this stage it looks as if the left is going to tighten its grip on Jeremy Corbyn’s party both north and south of the Border. Left-wingers believe a further manifestation of the Corbyn effect will hurt the SNP in Scotland’s working class constituencies. The other side of the coin is that Ms Dugdale’s recent reforms designed to make Scottish Labour autonomous from London will look little more than window dressing. Welcome back to the branch office.