Is Kezia Dugdale the right choice for Scottish Labour leader?

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 22 May 2015 in Editor's note

Mandy Rhodes on whether Kezia Dugdale is the woman to save Scottish Labour

•  Can you imagine Kezia Dugdale as First Minister? And if not, is she then the answer to Scottish Labour’s most recent leadership vacuum?

At the time of going to press [yet another important caveat given Jim Murphy’s delayed departure] Ms Dugdale, the party’s deputy, was still to announce her intention of stepping up, or down.

So at the same time as there are more Labour MPs announcing their intention not to stand for leader of the UK party than there are contenders to lead the party in Scotland – presently none – we have a reluctant deputy of the SLP presumably agonising over whether to be – or not – the lamb to the slaughter.

And with Ken Macintosh, the man that she backed to be leader in a previous leadership contest, held to replace Iain Gray – which was before she backed Jim Murphy to be leader to replace Johann Lamont [keep up] – also dragging his heels about whether to stand or not, this is either a complex game of poker, or more likely, no one has any faith in either their own or anyone else’s ability to play the game.

But no wonder. Without need for exaggeration, the Labour Party, both north and south, is in crisis. And has been for some time. But in this rush to recover, by quickly replacing a leader, the party is at risk of writing its own death certificate. It needs time to consider, reflect and actually do some listening rather than just repeating the mantra that it is.

Seven months ago Dugdale said in the Edinburgh Evening News, during her pitch to be the deputy leader, that she was no superhero but she was prepared to be a side-kick. And she did that role well.

And by all accounts, despite her slavishness to Murphy, she is well liked within the party, is an enthusiastic campaigner and has done alright at FMQs facing the formidable Nicola Sturgeon – albeit would do better without reading someone else’s script. But she has hardly held the Scottish Government to account. And that is exactly what it needs.

Dugdale was elected to the Scottish Parliament in 2011. Before that, she had worked in the office of Lord Foulkes. She has now worked under Gray,  Lamont and more recently, Murphy. Three leaders in just four years; all of whom she appears to have solidly given her all.

If Lamont said universalism was bad then so too did Dugdale. When Murphy said it was good, so too did his deputy. Standing full square behind your boss can be an asset – for your boss – but what Dugdale stands for as a leader is less clear and my advice to her would be to define herself before she feels ready to define the party.

The words are not meant to be unkind. I am convinced Dugdale has wit, intelligence and talent but in a list of great Scottish Labour leaders – Keir Hardie, John Smith, Gordon Brown – I’m not sure yet where she fits.

And it’s not about age. In this debate, people will cite Nicola Sturgeon as being a role model for incipient leadership but then Sturgeon had had years to grow into the role. She also had a master to learn from. Dugdale has none.

The SNP has taken more than a decade to shape itself from a party of defeat to a party of government. It took collective will, strategy and planning. It also had talent, a central belief in one thing and a pragmatism about how to get it. It had a plan and a certain amount of luck.

None of this currently applies to the Labour Party. Its problems run deep and to simply assume that the last woman standing should be the answer to its woes means its terms of reference are all wrong. Crossing its fingers and hoping for the best has not been an approach that has so far worked. So why keep doing it?

There is a nebulous thought out there that a) the party should move to the left to match the SNP and b) it should seek complete independence from the UK party. But on both counts, I would suggest, it is wrong.

The party assuming that to win back the ground effectively taken by the SNP can only be done by out-lefting the SNP ignores the rhetoric that comes out of its own mouth – that the SNP is no party of socialism. So why try and follow it there? Labour didn’t lose in Scotland because it wasn’t left enough – it lost because it wasn’t good enough.

And on autonomy, Scottish Labour’s USP in the context of the SNP is that while Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom, its strength lies in the solidarity of being a semi-autonomous structure within a wider united Labour Party. The spirit of that sentiment worked well during the referendum so why ignore it now? Save independence for if and when Scotland votes for it.

There seems to be much more of a debate about political direction for the UK Labour Party during its leadership contest. Scotland should be part of that debate.

Instead, Murphy has, on one hand, relieved Scottish Labour of ongoing accusations about it being a branch office by changing the rules but on the other, he has effectively neutered a debate by deciding, as a leader that lost an election, that he should undertake a party review before he walks out the door.

On LabourHame, the influential party blogging site, the veteran MSP Duncan McNeil wrote: “The result on 8 May was years in the making; the product of our party looking inwards over many years and losing touch with the people we are supposed to be for: a million small decisions mounting up. The way we organise party meetings. The procedures for welcoming new members. How we discuss difficult policy issues. The way in which we administer selections. How we deal with criticism.

"Over about 15 years we stopped listening to the people of Scotland, not at once, but gradually, bit by bit.”

He hits the nail on the head. What more can another Jim Murphy review teach the Labour Party about how to win back Scotland? The lesson is there.

Labour has to start to appeal, not to the electorate it wishes was there, but to the electorate that actually is there.

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