The bitter row over Dugdale’s legal costs that precipitated a reshuffle

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 5 October 2018 in Comment

Mandy Rhodes on the sticks and stones of Kezia Dugdale's defamation legal battle and how it has impacted the party she used to lead

Mandy Rhodes - Holyrood Magazine

What is most curious about the Kezia Dugdale defamation case is not that the Labour Party has pulled the plug on funding it – more of that later – but that it ever got this far.

In a 30-plus year career in journalism, I have been threatened with being sued for defamation on numerous occasions – there’s a lot of faux outrage out there – but only been pursued seriously three times. 

One ended in me being completely vindicated and the other two ended in apologies. And more importantly, both cases incurred the bare minimum in legal costs, i.e. hundreds and not the thousands that Dugdale has already racked up.

Being sued for defamation is, as Dugdale is discovering, a traumatic, time-consuming and costly experience which is why in media circles, we do everything we can to avoid it.

Politicians, on the other hand, wouldn’t normally be in the business of defaming – other than perhaps under parliamentary privilege and even then, only in exceptional circumstances – but we currently have two elected members, both serving on the parliament’s corporate body, who are facing legal action because of it.

And while the Green MSP Andy Wightman has so far been afforded the privilege of a cash cushion via crowdfunding, arguably not readily accessible to most ordinary citizens devoid of the same kind of public profile as he, Dugdale has now looked to her own party to fund a case which was sparked by a column she wrote for the Daily Record.

Dugdale used her platform in the newspaper to say an influential but highly controversial pro-independence blogger, Wings Over Scotland, had made a homophobic comment about David Mundell, the Secretary of State for Scotland. That amounted, presumably in Wings’ book, to being called a homophobe. And that’s pretty serious. 

And having already been given notice that he would sue over the matter, she repeated that claim in the chamber of the Scottish Parliament.

The newspaper she wrote for, rightly, initially took up the cudgel on her behalf but bizarrely then acquiesced and handed it over to the Labour Party which, it says, insisted it take matters into its own hands. That situation has since been reversed but the issue of who would actually stump up should Dugdale lose, remains at best, opaque.

And the question over whether the Labour Party ever agreed to stand by Dugdale, no matter what, which is what she maintains, has degenerated into a public slanging match, with Dugdale damning the party she once led in Scotland by asking, ‘how could you ever trust it?’

In answer to that perhaps, a letter written by the party’s General Secretary, Jennie Formby, to the chair of the Scottish Parliamentary Party, has raised its own doubts about Dugdale’s version of events. 

According to Formby, who, I understand, is to meet with MSPs later this month, the party had agreed to provide initial support to negotiate a ‘drop hands’ settlement to end the litigation. 

It then also agreed to fund counsel opinion on the chances of success and duly decided, having already spent £90,000, that it could not continue funding a legal action which could have significant financial liability for party members. 

She also made the point that the money spent thus far could have paid for two-full time party organisers and in a sideways swipe, said Dugdale hadn’t even thanked the party for its already substantial contribution to her legal battle.

There are many questions in this debacle, but what may have begun as Dugdale’s opportunity to give a political nemesis a bloody nose became a proxy for deep-seated battles within the Labour Party, culminating in a bitter reshuffle. It’s not pretty.

I was one of the first out of the traps to condemn Wings for what I called a ‘vile’ tweet but I never believed it was homophobic. I expressed the same to David Mundell the next day at the Tory Party conference when he thanked me for my support. And while ultimately this will be decided in court, what has been fascinating is the way opinion on a legal case that will be decided not on emotion or likeability but on fact, has split down partisan lines both within and out with the Labour Party. 

This is not a case of whether you like Dugdale more than you like Wings, it is about what is legally right. And normally in a case of defamation, it would be the pursuer that would be perceived as the victim whereas in this case, many column inches have been written in support of Dugdale who could find herself bankrupted and therefore out of Parliament.

One commentator suggested the Labour Party should have a duty to show “moral and public support” for a former party leader against a blogger who had “helped lower the tone of Scottish politics” while ignoring the irony in Dugdale’s appearance – and £70,000 fee – on a TV show that pits contestants against each other on the lowest possible base.

There have even been suggestions that Dugdale is being bullied in a legal battle – that she sparked – because she is a woman. That is blatant nonsense.

But what it is, is undoubtedly an unedifying episode in Labour’s troubled history. 

It is now almost a year since Richard Leonard took over the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party and it has been a year largely dominated by his predecessor’s actions: be that her foray into the jungle in defiance of the party’s business manager, or in dealing with her suspension of the nine Aberdeen councillors, and now in a bitter legal joust that really should be no concern of the party.

The result is he now has to deal with a deeply fractured parliamentary group reduced to two tribes, constantly threatening his authority.

At Tuesday group meetings, Leonard would sit while members of his own shadow cabinet attacked him and then the next day he’d preside over shadow cabinet with the same MSPs claiming to be on his team. 

A reshuffle was inevitable, but whether it closes down the indiscipline that has allowed for a former leader to question trust in the party she once led, and in doing so offering its opposition a certain campaign slogan, remains doubtful.

In her final column for the Daily Record, Dugdale said she was going to get back to the day job. For many, that’s what she should have been doing all along.

Solidarity, it seems, means different things to different members of the Labour Party but in terms of legal fees, the party has rightly decided that members’ funds should be reserved for the many and not the few.

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