THE SNP has suspended a selection race after launching a probe into the conduct of the local MSP, the Sunday National has learned.

Kenneth Gibson – who has the backing of several high-profile politicians – is fighting for reselection 13 years after becoming the MSP for Cunninghame North in Ayrshire.

Two others – former MP Corri Wilson and former SNP aide Osama Bhutta – have emerged to challenge him. But while SNP members elsewhere are currently voting for the person they want to represent their party in the 2021 election, officials have frozen the process in Cunninghame North.

The Sunday National has learned that National Secretary Angus MacLeod has initiated a probe into allegations of “bullying or harassment” by Gibson.

More than 20 branch and constituency officials wrote to the SNP last year, reporting claims of “aggressive” conduct by Gibson that is said to have been directed “especially” at women. These claims emerged in the Sunday Mail earlier this month, when it was suggested that the party had failed to investigate.

An external lawyer has now been tasked with taking testimony from complainants in a process which could lead see the matter taken to the party’s member conduct committee.

The news comes after the three planned hustings were called off after a complaint that the format would favour Gibson’s challengers. It’s unclear when the selection process will resume.

The long-serving politician, who achieved almost 52% of the vote in last election, has suggested he’s the target of a smear campaign and “underhand tactics”.

When the allegations emerged, he suggested some members backing rivals had “chosen to try and subvert the process by trying to discredit me publicly”, adding: “I am amazed that as we press for independence, a campaign of malice, apparently long in preparation, has been launched.”

The development comes after Bhutta – who quit as global communications director at Amnesty International to enter the race – announced he’d paused his own campaign in response to alleged wrongdoing by Gibson supporters.

A motion soliciting support for Gibson was drawn up by members of Garnock Valley branch and circulated to members. It was neither presented nor discussed by the branch but Bhutta lodged an official complaint with party top brass, calling the situation “unfair” and “disrespectful”. Wilson called for the SNP to ensure any rule breaches were “appropriately addressed”.

Addressing the current disruption, she said she had been “left in limbo as much as” members, adding: “I make no secret of my dissatisfaction over how this has been handled, nor do I support the micromanaged guidance for hustings which was issued to every constituency association.”

And Bhutta said: “The situation in Cunninghame North is a longstanding failure of leadership and poses a risk to the independence cause here.

“I’m fresh to the situation and will not continue the division. If I restart my campaign and members select me, I will be respectful and open-hearted to everyone, listen carefully, and work to bring people together.”

Cunninghame North is part of the West of Scotland region and has only ever been represented by one other person – Allan Wilson of Labour, who was pushed into second place by Gibson in 2007.

He is married to North Ayrshire and Arran MP Patricia Gibson and has been endorsed by Joanna Cherry MP, former Equalities Secretary Angela Constance and current Health Secretary Jeane Freeman, who said: “Having worked with Kenneth in the Scottish Parliament, I have absolutely no hesitation in urging SNP members to support him as the best person to represent the people and communities of Cunninghame North.”

But one of those who has given testimony to the probe told the Sunday National: “He works hard, everybody will tell you that. There’s a lot of people out there working hard. This is about how people are treated.

“We’re being asked why we are rocking the boat. We didn’t want to wash our dirty linen in public. We trusted the party to deal with this matter correctly.”

An SNP spokesperson said: “Cunninghame North is like any other constituency and a hustings will be held before the ballots are issued to all local members. We are on schedule to have all 73 constituency candidates in place early next month.”

Constituency organiser Dr Malcolm Kerr, a critic of Gibson questioned the timing of the party’s intervention, but said: “The investigation, even at this late stage, is welcome.”

Gibson said critics had attacked “without regard for how this might impact on support for the SNP, independence cause or me personally, as I continue to represent constituents and the SNP at this exceptionally busy time”. He went on: “If only a 10th as much energy was put into campaigning for the SNP by these folk. Clearly, such people do not believe that their candidate of choice can win fairly and squarely.

“Sadly, neither of the other nominees has even commented on, let alone condemned these underhand tactics. Meanwhile, I have been heartened by the dozens of endorsements received from local SNP activists, MPs, MSPs and three cabinet secretaries.”