When Kezia Dugdale quit as Scottish Labour leader in August, she said it was time to 'pass on the baton' to someone else, handing power to her deputy, Alex Rowley. Today, Rowley has stepped aside, leaving a leaderless party following allegations – which he denies – that he was abusive to his former partner.
The Corbyn ally recused himself after he was accused of 'emotional blackmail and abuse’. The woman, who has not been named, alleges that Rowley was controlling and sent her insulting text messages after she broke off the relationship. One is alleged to have read: 'You are one horrible nasty piece of work and I am going to expose you’; another: 'You are the most rotten b*****d I have had the misfortune to become involved with.’ The woman says she went to the police twice.
Rowley has issued a denial, saying:
'I totally refute these allegations and will take all steps necessary to clear my name. These allegations must be properly and thoroughly investigated in line with our party’s procedures – and I will refer myself to the party so such an investigation can take place.'
As well as relinquishing his duties as interim leader, he has also stepped back from his role as deputy leader. It leaves a vacuum at the top of Scottish Labour just six months after unexpected gains in the General Election. After taking the party from one MP to seven, leader Kezia Dugdale took Scottish politics by surprise by resigning in August. She cited personal reasons but the hard-left was eager to replace the critic of Jeremy Corbyn with someone more ideologically palatable. That decision prompted a leadership ballot pitting centrist Anas Sarwar against left-winger Richard Leonard in a contest poisonous and personal even by Scottish Labour standards.
Rowley, who was elected to serve as Dugdale’s deputy in 2015, took the helm and proved a dismal substitute from the start. His presentational style was stolid and not helped by a flat, provincial timbre. He used one session of First Minister’s Questions to attack Nicola Sturgeon for 'siding with the millionaires not the millions’, interpreted as a coded jibe at Sarwar, scion of a Glasgow wholesale empire. The following week he was secretly recorded voicing his allegiance to Leonard and admitting that the hard-left had not planned to see Dugdale’s leadership last beyond 2021. For the past fortnight, he has been absent from Holyrood with a chest infection, missing two sessions of First Minister’s Questions. Rowley will cease to act as Scottish Labour leader though it’s debatable if he ever started.
His decision to refer himself to the internal disciplinary process is not enough for some. A senior Scottish Labour source tells me: ‘It is untenable for him to step aside. He should step down now, recognising the leadership needs a woman in the team now more than ever. Furthermore, he should be suspended from the party, if there is anyone senior enough left to do it, whilst the investigation takes place as he’s proven before now that he’s not capable of being an impartial bystander.’
There will be questions too for Police Scotland over its handling of the woman's complaints. Scotland's national force is itself in crisis, its chief constable on leave amid a series of bullying allegations and the service censured by a review into its refusal to send officers to a woman's 999 call on the evening she was murdered.
After losing all but one of its MPs in 2015, Scottish Labour saw dark days but never this degree of disarray. I asked the party who their leader currently is. I’m still waiting for an answer.