Labour conference: How Kezia Dugdale is sick of listening
John McDonnell has a slightly odd intonation. Watching the new shadow chancellor speaking at the Labour conference, it was easy to be lulled into a false sense of security. He would mumble on at a barely audible level, like a hypnotist with strong views on quantitative easing, before suddenly raising his voice at wildly unpredictable points.
It was probably a half-hearted effort to instil some passion into proceedings, but it came across like a man shouting over loud music to someone on the other side of a party. Which, in a way, he was.
Both Jeremy Corbyn and McDonnell seemed keen to avoid controversy, though the shadow chancellor did risk claiming Labour was the “only anti-austerity party” – comments sure to anger the other anti-austerity parties – while urging Scots to “come home” to Labour.
The question was, what sort of home would they find when they get there? It was up to Kezia Dugdale to tell us.
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Dugdale started off by insisting she never wanted to be a politician – which makes it all the more surprising that she became one.
It was a similar speech to one she gave in August, when she claimed, “I am an accidental politician.”
Speaking in Brighton, she said: “When we had a devastating election result in 2011, I was as surprised as anyone to be elected to the Scottish Parliament.”
It must have been quite a shock. Someone probably should have warned Kezia during the four years she worked as an office manager and political adviser to George Foulkes – then an MSP – that there was a terrible risk she would become involved in party politics.
At the very least, someone with Dugdale’s best interests at heart should have told her that by putting herself forward for selection, then getting added to the party list during an election for Parliament, there was a real and present danger of accidentally becoming an elected politician.
She said: “I’ve watched many speeches from former Scottish leaders at this conference. And since 2007, they’ve followed a pattern.
“They’ve spoken passionately and forcefully about the problems Scotland faces. They’ve told people what our values are and what they mean for today. And they’ve pledged to listen to the Scottish people.
“I’m not here today to make another pledge to listen to people.”
Good. If anything, in the past, Scottish Labour listened too much, hanging around outside doors trying to glean snippets of conversations. Sitting outside your house with super-charged ears, like some monstrous owl.
Dugdale’s strategy is brilliant. In fact, it’s hard to understand why politicians haven’t thought of this before. Well, obviously dictators have. But that isn’t where Labour is getting its ideas from now, is it? It can’t be – that would be a weird and probably slanderous thing to write, if indeed anyone had written it. Which they haven’t.
But Dugdale’s comments did seem to be in stark contrast to Jeremy Corbyn’s, who announced his plans to “open debate in our party and our movement.” He said: “I will listen to everyone. I firmly believe leadership is about listening.” In fact, he even tried to help out, saying: “Kezia has asked people to take another look at the Labour Party.”
So Jeremy will listen to everyone, while Kez is sick of listening. Meanwhile looking is OK, just not speaking. Politics is confusing.
Dugdale continued: “I’m here to say: we get the message and we’re going to do something about it. In the past we needed to listen, but we also needed to act. And we got that balance wrong. We heard the message the Scottish people were giving us – and in the past few years we heard it repeatedly. But we didn’t do enough to change it.”
We heard a lot about this ‘message’, though it was never spelled out. Presumably that would involve listening.
But if it seemed an odd message to send, at least it might explain how Kezia accidentally ended up getting elected. Someone probably warned her, but she wouldn’t listen.
Dugdale continued: “I’m not going to be so presumptive as to ask people for their votes today, but I want them to hear what we’ve got to say.”
Is hearing the same as listening?
Moving onto weaknesses in the SNP’s domestic record – which in a devolved parliament really means all of its record – Dugdale highlighted growing inequality in Scotland.
Poor kids, she said, face “the lowest levels of student support anywhere in the UK”, while cuts to college budgets mean “a generation of young working-class people deprived of the opportunities they deserve”.
Moving onto health, she warned “we have hospitals creaking at the seams”. Why did we even build hospitals that have seams? We should have made them from bricks. Sounds like PFI – but why did no one listen to the architects?
Still, Dugdale finished on a high note. “Our past should be the level for us to exceed, not the limit of our expectations. This is what I came into politics for. And it’s why I joined the Labour Party.”
She joined Labour? Up until that point, Dugdale had given the impression she had ended up leader by accident – after a drunken night out, because of some sort of administrative error, or through a series of farcical mistakes. Though critics would argue that last one is sort of true.
Still, the message was clear. “The days of listening and not acting are over.”
Let the days of acting and not listening begin.