LAST week’s Labour leadership hustings in Glasgow should have been a homecoming for Anas Sarwar, but for some of the MSP’s backers the event had all the bounce of a funeral parlour.

When Kezia Dugdale suddenly quit last month Sarwar was the favourite to become the party’s ninth leader in the devolution era.

Moderate, relatively experienced and ambitious, he was an obvious contender for a party that needed someone who was committed to being First Minister.

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However, his campaign has collapsed over stories in the Sunday Herald that may hand victory to his left-wing rival, MSP Richard Leonard.

By the time of the Glasgow hustings Sarwar had faced a barrage of questions over his children being privately educated, as well as over the employment conditions at his family’s cash and carry firm, United Wholesale Scotland, in which he has a multi-million pound stake.

In any leadership contest, a candidate must sit down with his team, draw up a list of negatives and produce answers in an attempt to change the narrative. His apparent failure in this regard has angered and frustrated his supporters.

“Why did he not anticipate these attacks? Why did he not prepare better?” asked one sympathiser.

Another supporter said: “He thought he would coast through this contest. It reeks of complacency and a sense of entitlement.”

As an example, this newspaper’s story on Sarwar’s children being educated at a fee-paying school was first published in 2014. He had over three years to come up with a credible explanation, but instead gave a rambling, unimpressive response about his grandfather that made no attempt at answering the question.

However, nobody in the party believed the private school issue alone would sink his campaign. The turning point, friends and foes believe, was the Sunday Herald story on UWS paying some of its staff less than the “real” living wage of £8.45 an hour.

People join the Labour party for different reasons, but almost all members are united by a burning sense of injustice over staff who work long hours for low pay.

UWS reported turnover of £227 million in 2015. The firm made a profit of £1.7m. Sarwar was estimated to have had a stake of over £4m in the company, which his brother Asim runs. But some workers only get £7.50 an hour for working there.

Two days after the living wage revelations I asked UWS whether trade unions are recognised by the firm. Instead of an answer I got a lawyer’s letter claiming that the question was “politically motivated”. In other words – no union recognition.

As one party member said: “If UWS was unionised, the wages would be higher.

Sarwar’s supporters fear their man has been fatally wounded. On three crucial issues for Labour members – education, low pay and trade unions – the MSP cannot get a hearing.

He has been left to champion the NHS – hardly a unique selling point for a Labour candidate – but his utterances have been little more than a series of reheated policy announcements.

Sarwar has also become a figure of fun. When interim leader Alex Rowley last week accused the SNP Government of standing up for “millionaires” First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gleefully turned the jibe into a living wage attack on Sarwar.

Sturgeon and Health Secretary Shona Robison are said to dislike Sarwar and the look of pleasure on their faces at First Minister’s Questions was obvious. Rowley had handed the First Minister ammunition to attack a rival – and she duly fired the bullets.

As the story spiralled out of control Sarwar yesterday distanced himself from UWS by relinquishing all his shares in the company.

However, it may be too late. Two weeks into the campaign Leonard’s supporters are fired up and smell blood. Scottish Labour has never elected a left-wing leader and they feel that this is their time.

By contrast, Sarwar’s backers – establishment figures, youthful careerists and folk who dislike the left – are increasingly unenthusiastic about the Glasgow MSP. They back him because of who he is not, rather than who he is.

Sarwar’s defenders are hopeful he can move on from a car crash week, but they are equally afraid there may be future pile-ups ahead.