Richard Leonard, the new leader of Scottish Labour, has said “feelings are running high” in the party after his predecessor, Kezia Dugdale, joined the reality TV show I’m a Celebrity, Get me Out of Here.
Dugdale, who quit as Scottish leader in August, has caused a furious row after news leaked out on Friday night that she was flying to join the contest in Australia without first getting party approval to be away from Holyrood for up to three weeks.
Her colleagues are split on whether Dugdale should be taking part and the dispute has eclipsed Leonard’s victory on Saturday after the party’s leadership contest, overshadowing coverage of his interventionist leftwing agenda. There are suggestions she failed to tell the party what her overseas trip was for.
One of Leonard’s most influential supporters, Neil Findlay – a combative Labour MSP who, like Dugdale, was elected to Holyrood on the Lothians regional list– said her decision to take part was “utterly ludicrous. It demeans politics when people get involved in that.”
He added: “People out there are struggling and there’s huge pressures on public services and that’s the job we should be doing.”
Jenny Gilruth, Dugdale’s partner and a Scottish National party MSP, retaliated by accusing Labour of bullying her.
Distancing himself from Findlay’s attacks, Leonard confirmed he did not believe Dugdale should be immediately suspended but said the Labour group at Holyrood needed to consider that option.
Asked about Gilruth’s accusations on BBC Radio Scotland, Leonard said: “There was certainly a strong reaction to it on social media … and feelings are running high about it, there is no question about that.”
Dugdale’s fate could be decided as early as Tuesday, when the Scottish Labour group at Holyrood is scheduled to hold its normal weekly meeting. But with Leonard still in the throes of appointing his key staff, party officials believe that meeting may be put back.
Jeremy Corbyn said on Saturday that he saw no case to suspend Dugdale, but as part of her reforms of the party’s structures, party discipline in Scotland is now controlled by the Scottish leader.
“I have said over the weekend that I think we need to consider it,” Leonard said. “And I have also expressed my own personal disappointment that that was the decision she has chosen to make.
“There are issues around not just the fact she is there, and the kind of programme it is and people’s view of that, there’s also a question of whether she got permission to do it. My understanding is she sought permission and wasn’t given permission.”
Dugdale has made no public comment about the controversy, which broke on Friday night about 12 hours before her successor was unveiled, but has reportedly promised to donate her MSP’s salary to charity while she is away. There are unconfirmed reports she will also donate her ITV fee to charity too.
Adding to Labour’s discomfort, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has stoked the controversy by backing Dugdale’s decision and joining an army of supporters on Twitter using the hashtag #TeamKez.
John McTernan, formerly Scottish Labour’s head of policy at Holyrood and now a pollster with consultancy PSB, said he believed Dugdale was right to take part. “I think the people criticising Kez are incredibly po-faced.
“There are millions of people out there who are alienated by politics as it is traditionally done, and the opportunity to appear on primetime TV, and show the human side of herself and connect with the public is one she should never give up.”
SNP activists have joined in by highlighting the splits in Labour while publicly backing Dugdale on Twitter. She is expected to join the 10 other contestants, including the boxer Amir Khan, Stanley Johnson, the father of the foreign secretary, and comedian Shappi Khorsandi later this week.
Sturgeon, like many other viewers in Scotland drawn to the show by the controversy, was surprised Dugdale was not unveiled with the other contestants when this year’s series started on Sunday evening.
Labour’s discomfort centres in part on pressure in the party for it to support legislation barring MSPs and MPs from having second jobs. As Scottish leader, Dugdale had repeatedly told Sturgeon she needed to “get back to the day job” of running public services rather than focusing on Scottish independence.
This article was written by Severin Carrell Scotland editor, for theguardian.com on Monday 20th November 2017 11.32 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010