Richard Leonard has told Scottish Labour party members they have “underestimated” him, over calls for him to step down.
As inter-party tensions mount, the Scottish Labour leader said he feels the need to “remind a small group of people” that they had underestimated his resolve.
At a meeting of the Scottish Parliamentary Labour Party, the leader has called on members to be united, saying there was “nothing more certain in politics than that people do not vote for parties which are divided”.
Mr Leonard said: “I feel I need to remind a small group within our parliamentary group, who have called on me to step down and who have repeatedly attacked me in public, and have briefed against me: you have underestimated my resolve and underestimated the mandate I received from Scottish Labour Party members just under three years ago to lead the Scottish Labour Party.
“You have underestimated me.
“There is no democratic legitimacy to override the wishes of Scottish Labour Party members, who keep telling me that it would be a dereliction of duty for the Labour Party to turn in on itself at the very point when the country is facing an unprecedented health, economic and jobs crisis.”
This comes after rebel Labour MSPs refused to rule out court action.
The group, including James Kelly and Daniel Johnson, argue that, with a fifth of MSPs at Holyrood no longer supporting Mr Leonard’s leadership, that should be enough to permit a leadership election.
However they could not say who their candidate for the post would be – insisting that it is important first to clarify how any leadership contest could be sparked.
But Mr Leonard called the move “astonishing” and “despicable”, saying: “We have a serious job to do, as the economy collapses, as unemployment rockets, as public services like health come under intense pressure.
“The last thing the people who need a strong Labour Party want is a Labour Party degenerating into internal strife.
“We need to be outward looking. There is nothing more certain in politics than that people do not vote for parties which are divided. Being elected as a Labour representative is an honour.
“And months out from an election to hear MSPs threatening to take the party to court when we know that we are up and against it with the resources and cash of the SNP and the Tories I find astonishing, even despicable.
“The real priority is about whether people are going to have jobs or not. Whether or not young people have a future. How we treat the elderly to give them dignity in old age – including those in residential care homes. That should be our sole focus.”