Interview: Kezia Dugdale on tax, Jeremy Corbyn and the elections
Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale on her party's chances in the Scottish Parliament elections
It is an hour after First Minister’s Questions and the Scottish Parliament garden lobby is still full of life. Camera crews loiter around the bottom of the stairs. Backbenchers litter the sofas, chatting away next to the café, which is doing a booming trade in coffee.
The exchange in the chamber between the leaders of the SNP and Scottish Labour had been one of their most heated yet. It came days after Labour unveiled its new tax plan – a penny rise, across each band, combined with a £100 rebate to those earning under £20,000 – which it said would raise £500m and mitigate the worst excesses of the budgetary cuts handed onto the Scottish Government from Westminster.
Down in the rarefied atmosphere of the garden lobby, some of that tension still hangs in the air. Upstairs, Kezia Dugdale is sitting in a Labour office, underneath old party election posters, and next to a large print of the now iconic blue and red image of Barack Obama, designed during his 2008 campaign. The word ‘hope’ is written in capital letters below the US President’s head.
FMQs was heated because Dugdale accused Nicola Sturgeon of producing a budget which “used this Parliament as a conveyor belt for Westminster austerity”. Dugdale still doesn’t seem particularly keen on FMQs. “It’s political theatre,” she explains, shrugging. Nonetheless she has looked more comfortable while railing against budget cuts.
In the build-up to the General Election, with Ed Balls promoting a manifesto pledging a slightly diluted version of George Osborne’s own spending plans, there was some confusion over what Scottish Labour’s relationship with austerity really was. Has that changed? Is Dugdale standing on more certain ground?
“I think what changed is that whilst we have been able to oppose austerity in the past, we have not always been able to point to a radical and credible alternative, which is what our tax policy is,” she says. “It allows me to assert, with authority, that it doesn’t have to be this way, that there is another choice that can be made, and I believe that in my bones. So I guess that makes a difference.”
Dugdale says she had been planning her Scottish Rate of Income Tax (SRIT) policy since early December. She announced it in February.
The move was pretty bold. After all, beyond the risk of promising a tax rise before an election, the power over SRIT has often been viewed as a trap, given the Scottish Government would be forced to raise each band together, rather than just the higher ones. It is hard to do it progressively. It was this fact that forced Labour to include the rebate.
“Yes, although even if you don’t include the rebate, anybody earning less than £19,000 a year won’t pay any more tax next year than they are this year, because of the changes to the income thresholds. So I think the argument against it, trying to say that it’s not progressive, that it’s in any way unfair, is incredibly weak.”
Dugdale is also defensive of the rebate plan, arguing “there are at least three or four different ways” councils could make it work.
“The best tangible example is probably Glasgow City Council, which has its own equivalent of the Winter Fuel Allowance at the moment. So that is a council with the administrative system in place to deliver a cash payment to a particular group of people. We also spoke to Mark Macmillan at Renfrewshire Council who suggested that it could quite feasibly be done through the 2003 Local Government Act, under the powers to advance wellbeing, which allows councils to do pretty much anything they want if they can prove it advances wellbeing.
“But isn’t that so interesting,” she adds, “that the SNP went straight to that, rather than talk about the principle?”
It certainly seemed to surprise the SNP. Should we expect something more radical to come from Labour, when greater powers over income tax arrive?
“I don’t know about the word radical, but we will certainly set out our full approach to tax in the round, before polling day. That will be right through our manifesto.”
Fair enough. But still, voters have spent about six years having the idea of Tory austerity drummed into them. It has framed political debate for a long time. So how can Labour go about convincing people these are SNP cuts, rather than Tory ones?
“By arguing that this is the first year that we could credibly have done something different… So I say to people that when we were faced with the choice of accepting Tory cuts or investing in the future, I chose to invest in the future, and the SNP chose to accept Tory cuts.
“Now the evidence that people are willing to listen to that was in the Daily Record poll last week – 48 per cent support our plans to put income tax up, 31 per cent oppose and then some people are in the undecided territory.
“I was really encouraged by that, because, in a sense, I didn’t anticipate millions of people lining up offering to pay more tax, and it got a much better response than I had anticipated, because people could really see that the price of not doing this is losing classroom assistants, libraries closing, community centres [closing].”
This seems an odd move for the leader of a party still trailing in the polls. If you don’t think people will support a policy, why come up with it?
Both in the chamber and in this interview, Dugdale has a particularly earnest style of speech. Sometimes when she is castigating the Government, she even looks slightly sad. But while, in person, she smiles almost constantly, this question – why introduce policies you expect to be unpopular – seems to get a rise out of her.
“Because I believe in it.” Dugdale’s smile disappears, albeit temporarily. “There’s a novel idea, a politician saying exactly what they think. I just could not have voted for a budget that was going to strip £500m out of the Scottish budget.”
Principled politics or not, it looks very likely the SNP will win a majority at the election. In fact, there is an argument that Labour can frame the debate with these policies – create a situation where the SNP is forced to vote against tax rises to pay for public services – while knowing they will never need to carry them through.
Dugdale looks unimpressed by this line of reasoning.
“So I could advocate a policy that would be even less popular, and that is something I would actively choose? That would be a very cold political approach.”
And yet Dugdale has just said, moments before, that the SRIT policy proved she would ‘invest in the future’, while the SNP ‘choose to accept Tory cuts’. Regardless of intentions, the policy puts the SNP in a tricky position, and Labour will, probably, be unable to implement it.
“Look, I did it because I believe in it. There has been universal support for it within the Labour movement. The Labour Party believes in it. For once we have been able to say, ‘we stand firm against cuts’ and point to a credible alternative, and that has given everyone a real boost of morale – a real sense of purpose.”
A morale boost will no doubt be welcome, but, with constitutional issues still hanging over Scotland, whether it will be a vote winner remains to be seen. To what extent will tax define the election?
“This is absolutely a tax and welfare election. Nicola Sturgeon and I have both said we want this building, the Scottish Parliament, to be more powerful. It is more powerful, but for what purpose?
“The SNP constantly talk about how they are ‘strong for Scotland’, but what is strength without principle? What is the purpose of their government? If these powers are for something, surely it has to be making different choices from the Westminster Government? How can you possibly argue you are strong for Scotland when you have those powers and you make the same choices as the Tories?”
So what would constitute a success in the upcoming election? What would you like to see?
She laughs, “I’ll have Nicola’s chair and her desk, thank you.”
“My metrics for success are about the degree to which I have renewed the Scottish Labour Party. When I sat down with Mandy [Mandy Rhodes, Holyrood editor] before Christmas, I talked about how I wanted to renew the values of the party, to make it clear what we stand for – talking about tax does that, talking about education does that – I said I wanted to renew the future focus of the party, that is about bringing forward new candidates, and I am very pleased with the result of the list election. Then the last bit of the renewal is the Labour family itself, the relationship between the Scottish and UK Labour Party.”
Dugdale mentions discussions with Jeremy Corbyn while describing her attempt to change the relationship between the UK and Scottish Labour parties.
When he came in there was a sense he might be more palatable for many Scots than some of his leadership rivals, and being free of some of the baggage associated with New Labour, could be an aid in Dugdale’s attempt to rejuvenate, or resuscitate, the party north of the border. He has certainly taken a different approach to that of the Blair years.
In fact, just the day before the interview, David Cameron had laid into Corbyn’s appearance during PMQs, telling him to “put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem”. How has he affected Scottish Labour’s prospects?
“He’s lovely. If you are asking me if he is a plus or a minus, he’s absolutely a plus, and there is a very simple reason for that. He represents a very simple, principled belief that politics is a power for good. That, in a way, has gone for the past few years, with the expenses scandal and all sorts of different things, but here is a man that is driven by his principles, who believes in the power of politics to effect change.”
So he’s not too scruffy?
“Too scruffy?” Dugdale throws her head back and laughs, “No, god, PMQs was pretty dire in that regard. He was wearing a suit, he had a tie on.”
She pauses, considering, “I’ll maybe get him a beard comb.”
So would things be any different if another candidate had won? Dugdale has repeatedly had her warning, made during the leadership contest, that a victory for Corbyn would leave Labour “carping from the sidelines” thrown at her by the SNP. Has her view changed? Does she regret it?
“I don’t regret it, no. I also don’t accept that it was in any way disparaging, or insulting. You didn’t do it, but quite often that is how journalists put it to me. That you offended Jeremy when you said that, and he didn’t see it that way, I didn’t see it that way, I just posed the question.
“When he has the mandate that he has from the Labour Party, that should be respected and I do respect it. I am loyal to him. Likewise, he is very loyal to me – I told him I need to be in a position to lead the Scottish Labour Party the way I want to, that all the decisions are mine, he accepts that and asks what he can do to help.”
And what about some of the other big Labour figures? Gordon Brown is still pretty active, does Dugdale still speak to him much? Or Alistair Darling?
“I am much closer to Alistair Darling for no other reason than sheer geography. When I first joined the Labour Party in 2003, Edinburgh South West was my CLP. He became, and his wife Maggie more so, a sort of confidante and a sort of,” Dugdale pauses briefly, apparently torn about how to continue. “I’m going to say it, I don’t care if he doesn’t like it, a political dad, if you know what I mean. So I speak to Alistair regularly, not in a consultative way, I am not asking him what he thinks, or asking him for advice, I see him because he is my friend. I mention that because I don’t have that relationship with Gordon, our paths don’t cross in that way.”
What about Jim Murphy? Are you still in touch? “I haven’t seen Jim for quite a while but we exchange texts. He’s very busy with his new job.” Dugdale insists her predecessor, the man who held the post for exactly six months, is not feeding into policy.
A fresh start makes sense, and Dugdale reels off a list of candidates who she believes will inject new life into Labour. But among the new faces there are some familiar ones. I mention that two old MPs, Anas Sarwar and Thomas Docherty, who lost out in the General Election, are on the list. Dugdale objects to the term ‘old MPs’.
“Anas is younger than me, so for his whole political life to be written off as an old MP I think is a bit unfair.”
Who is writing off his entire political career? I apologise, explaining I meant ‘former MP’.
Dugdale, grins: “I know you didn’t mean it, but some of the coverage was about ‘a whole bunch of old faces’, the guy is 31!”
And what about Dugdale? Leader at 33, and looking likely to at least outlast Murphy’s six-month tenure as leader. Before the deputy leadership contest, Dugdale said in an interview she only wanted to serve as an MSP for three terms. Has that changed? After all, if you imagine, hypothetically, that the SNP wins the next election, surely Dugdale would hope to be First Minister in 2021. Would she only do one term as FM?
She seems to regret the comments. “What I was trying to explain was that I will do this job for as long as I have the same passion for it I had on day one. The minute that goes, I know I will want to give someone else the chance to do what I do, because it’s an incredible honour and privilege to be an MSP.”
So it is not a three-term rule?
Dugdale laughs: “It is not a rule.”
Still, David Cameron is doing it, having announced he will leave at the end of this term.
“Yeah,” she pauses, “I guess that’s the first time I have been compared to him.”
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