A SCOTTISH Labour councillor has spoken of the “mental torture” he endured after he was accused of racism by party MSP Anas Sarwar.

In a highly emotional interview, David McLachlan, who was cleared last week by Labour, said the allegations had destroyed his life, left his political career in tatters, made him ill, and affected his earnings as a driving instructor.

He also called for Sarwar, who alleged that McLachlan had referred to him as a “brown, Muslim P***”, to apologise.

The 56-year-old said one of the lowest points over the last 15 months was receiving letters from racists who offered him support, even though he categorically denied using racist language.

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In January last year, Glasgow MSP Sarwar told a newspaper that an unnamed party councillor had made a racist comment to him.

Sarwar, the defeated candidate in the previous year’s Scottish Labour leadership contest, said at the time: “A leader of a Labour council group told me very clearly the reason that he couldn’t support me in the leadership election was that, in his words, Scotland wasn’t ready for a ‘brown, Muslim, P***’.”

The MSP informed Scottish Labour that the man was McLachlan, a South Lanarkshire councillor who the party suspended pending an investigation. He categorically denied the allegations.

The first meeting of Sarwar’s new cross-party group on tackling Islamophobia took place on the day after the newspaper article was published. Labour’s internal probe took 15 months to reach a conclusion.

On Monday, the party’s National Constitutional Committee (NCC), which deals with disciplinary matters, dismissed the case and cleared the councillor.

In an interview at his home in Hamilton, McLachlan recalled his reaction after reading the original article: “Not for a second did I think it was myself.”

He said party general secretary Brian Roy contacted him to say that Sarwar had named him, after which he watched himself on the news getting accused of racism.

“I was just sitting here, devastated. I was extremely upset,” he recalls.

He continues: “Monday it was in the paper. Tuesday I was suspended [and] Anas Sarwar was launching his cross-party group on rooting out Islamophobia and racism. The timing of that couldn’t have been any better.” McLachlan breaks down and the interview is temporarily halted.

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He then spoke about what happened on the Thursday of that week, when First Minister Nicola Sturgeon praised Sarwar in the Holyrood chamber.

“It would have been brave in any circumstances, but all of us know that raising issues that involve people in our own parties is even more difficult, and so the praise for having done so should be even greater,” Sturgeon said. McLachlan breaks down again as he recalls Sarwar’s exchange with the First Minister.

HeraldScotland:

Image: Sarwar, McLachlan and the councillor's wife

He says the racism allegations centre on two telephone conversations between him and Sarwar on September 7, 2017, which was during the leadership contest between the Glasgow MSP and left-winger Richard Leonard. Sarwar was seeking the councillor’s support.

The pair already knew each other. McLachlan had backed Sarwar during the Scottish Labour deputy leadership contest in 2011, while the MSP attended the councillor’s campaign launch in Hamilton in 2012.

Nobody else listened to the conversation and there is no recording. Both men’s accounts of what was said flatly contradict each other.

According to the councillor, the first conversation was a general chat about politics, during which he said he expressed only one reservation, namely Sarwar’s opposition to UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. McLachlan is a Corbyn backer.

“I raised that concern with Anas,” he says, adding that Sarwar told him he had changed his mind about Corbyn.

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While Sarwar alleged that McLachlan said that he could not support him – on account of Scotland not being ready for a “brown, Muslim P***” – the councillor says they had another chat on the phone at around 7 in the evening: “I said, ‘look Anas, I’ve made my mind up. I’m going to support you’. He said ‘oh that’s great, fantastic’.”

McLachlan says that, during the internal Labour investigation into the allegations, he produced witness statements which confirmed he had initially supported Sarwar.

I ask if he used the racist phrase that has been attributed to him: “Absolutely not.”

Did he use the racist ‘P’ word? “Absolutely not,” he replied.

I ask why Sarwar said that he had said it. “That question has been put to me umpteen times. Brian Roy asked me the same question.

“He said ‘why would Anas invent something like this then’ ... I said ‘Brian, you would need to ask Anas that. I can’t speak for Anas’.”

He also questions the form of words he is accused of using: “I have never heard that phrase being mentioned by anyone, ever. The words aren’t used, they are never strung together in a phrase.”

Asked if Sarwar’s allegations could have been based on a misunderstanding, he says: “There is absolutely no way it could be misunderstood. There just isn’t any room to misconstrue or misunderstand anything that was said in the conversation, that could lead him to that conclusion that these words were used.”

It was only after the two conversations, McLachlan said, that he changed his mind and backed Leonard over Sarwar.

The councillor said the turning point was newspaper articles which showed that the Sarwar family business did not pay staff the real living wage or recognise trade unions, revelations that damaged the candidate: “I’m thinking ‘for goodness sake, this is a huge company, they’ve got a lot of warehouses and I would imagine they’ll have hundreds of staff’. And they don’t recognise trade unions?

“I started to have reservations about whether I was doing the right thing in supporting Anas.”

He says he switched to the other candidate and his name appeared on a public list of endorsements for Leonard.

On the investigation itself, McLachlan says Roy absented himself from the probe, after which he was interviewed by other party figures. At one stage, he said he was offered what sounded like a plea bargain, which he rejected.

It took over 15 months for Labour’s NCC to hold a hearing on the allegations against him.

Although the NCC cleared him on Monday in Glasgow, he feared the worst, believing the case would be seen as “Davie the councillor” versus a “revered politician”.

He admits feeling paranoid about the hearing: “I started to worry, ‘could the party just be making an example of me?’.” He says: “That didn’t happen. And the case was dismissed at the very first hurdle.”

However, McLachlan adds: “I still feel as if I am in a goldfish bowl. On Monday, I should have been elated and happy, and delighted with the outcome, but I’m not. I’m still sitting here, and I’m very hurt and very bruised.”

Sarwar has blasted the NCC process that led to McLachlan being cleared. The MSP said he was given four days’ notice, as a witness, of the Glasgow hearing. On the day, he said he was stopped from giving evidence as he was told he had not given the committee two weeks’ notice. He described Labour’s disciplinary process as “deeply flawed” and “not fit for purpose”.

In response, McLachlan said that he too did not give oral evidence at the hearing, as the panel decided there was no case to answer based on the written submissions.

He says bitterly: “I didn’t even get to tell my side of the story.”

A 15-month process for an internal party investigation is clearly unfair on any complainant, but what was the effect on the councillor who was accused? McLachlan was suspended from Labour and lost his job as group leader on South Lanarkshire council. That alone cost him £8,000.

“Fifteen months of my life have been destroyed. Political career in tatters. My professional life, as a driving instructor, the bookings went through the floor,” he says.

On many occasions, he said he found himself sitting at his kitchen table at 3am, unable to sleep. He has been ill with stress.

“I’m the person on the news. I’m the person that’s labelled a racist. I’m the one that they are all talking about for 15 months. And I’m sitting here [and] I can’t say or do anything about it until the party decides ‘let’s have a look at it’.”

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McLachlan says this period has been the worst of his life. Asked if he will ever get over it, he replies: “Absolutely not. How can you possibly get over this?” He says he has gone through “mental torture”, adding that his head is like “broken bottles”.

His fragile emotional state was not helped when racists, including from South Africa, got in touch: “People would write to me, praising me, saying ‘you are quite right’.

“People who are obviously racist and thought that I was racist. It was horrendous stuff.”

He adds: “That was worse for me emotionally than people having a go at me.”

McLachlan, whose suspension has been lifted, concludes: “I should get an apology from Anas.”

Anas Sarwar said: “I have consistently said that this isn’t about one individual. This is about challenging a wider culture and we have made great strides in the campaign against Islamophobia.

“I have made clear my deep concerns about the disciplinary process, and these concerns are shared by Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard and the entire Labour MSP group.

“The UK Labour Party needs to provide a full explanation on its handling of this case, and it needs to understand the message that this sends about the party’s commitment to tackling Islamophobia and all forms of prejudice.”