‘Anti-austerity politics is now the centre-ground of Scottish politics’, Kezia Dugdale tells Ayesha Hazarika
Kezia Dugdale is on cracking form. The Scottish Labour leader meets me in central London after a strong performance on the Daily Politics and ahead of a fundraiser.
She tells me she faces the same two questions on a loop: ‘Oh, you’ve got a tough job, haven’t you?’ Then people tilt their head and whisper, ‘Are you OK?’ Dugdale’s response is to laugh and say, ‘Yes. I’m absolutely fine. I’m really upbeat and positive and I have a plan.’
It must have been a daunting prospect to step forward and lead the party at the age of 34, and she reveals that she took four days to make sure she was not ‘flattered into taking the job … I had to be sure I knew what I was going to do.’
She is very clear-eyed about how difficult the road ahead is for Scottish Labour. The Scottish National party is polling 53 per cent right now and it may well win every constituency seat. But she has priced that into her long-term plan for the party. ‘The metric of success for me is not about the number of seats, but by May I have to prove a case that people have a much clearer sense of what the Labour party is about in Scotland now.’
Dugdale’s strategy is to renew the party in Scotland through three pillars of work: first, renew the values so there is a clear sense of what the party stands for – and we have seen that in Scottish Labour’s new income tax policy. Second, renew the future focus of the party, which involves fresh faces and asking bigger questions about what Scotland may look like in 20-30 years’ time rather than just looking at a short electoral cycle. And, third, renew the Labour family and the Scottish party’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom.
On that last point she feels she has already made progress and struck the right balance – she is not the manager of the ‘branch office’ as former leader Johann Lamont once complained, to devastating effect. ‘The first time I came to London as leader was to assert my authority. I said, “Right, Scotland is in deep trouble … I put my name down for the job because I believe I have a plan to fix it – you’ve got to trust me … If you don’t give me the space to do what needs to be done to make it better than you’re hurting our whole movement.”’
But Dugdale is very committed to having a close relationship with the rest of the UK. She has also built good relations with Carwyn Jones in Wales; the Scottish Labour leader and Welsh first minister’s teams now have a direct line to each other for the first time, which is a very smart move. And she wants to build a strong profile across the whole country. ‘It is quite important when Nicola [Sturgeon] is very clearly a big player across the UK.’
Relations with Jeremy Corbyn are good, although last summer Dugdale openly questioned his capacity to be prime minister in the Guardian due to his voting record. Soon after their respective elections, she revealed to him that she voted for Yvette Cooper. ‘He is quite chilled about all of this stuff … we get on really well … he’s an utter gentleman, very affable and we have lovely chats whenever I see him.’
When it comes to campaigning in the Scottish elections she is clear that ‘he’ll be there but not a whole heap … the best thing Jeremy can do for me is to come up and talk about how the SNP aren’t actually an anti-austerity party.’ Although polling suggests Corbyn is a drag on the ticket among the Scottish electorate, she takes the view that he is an asset because, ‘he gives people a sense of hope and faith that politics is a force for good … But it’s not Jeremy’s job to fix the Scottish Labour party. That’s my job.’
The road back for Scottish Labour is long. Does Dugdale believe Scotland is simply more leftwing? ‘Complete crap,’ she replies. She talks about a key group of young voters – around her own age – who just do not want to vote for Labour – a danger for the future that she has identified. ‘I’m talking about largely young professionals, university-educated, living in an urban centre – Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen – in the private rented sector trying to buy their first home or just in their first home full of aspiration for the future.’ Labour did not really speak to this group of aspirational voters; it has been seen as only having something to say about ‘the needy and the greedy’.
But the simplistic retail offer in politics is not the answer as ‘Scottish politics is no longer rational, it’s emotional, it’s about how people feel.’
How the SNP played austerity in early 2015 was powerful. The ‘welfare thing still lingers on in Scotland’ as does the ‘30 billion pounds’ worth of austerity cuts,’ Dugdale says. But, ‘reflecting on the [leaders’] debate’, she continues, what is ‘more damaging’ was ‘the clash around the difference between Labour and the Tories … So Ed turns to Nicola and says, “You know, Nicola, there’s a world of difference between Labour and the Tories”, and she carps back, “I’m not saying there isn’t a difference – I’m saying there isn’t a big enough difference.” That for me was the seminal moment of the debates.’
The Lothian list member also says that ‘anti-austerity politics is now the centre-ground of Scottish politics because the lesson from the referendum is that there is an overwhelming desire for change.’ ‘There’s a choice here. We either choose to accept austerity and the Scottish parliament becomes a conveyor belt for Tory cuts or we choose to do things differently. I choose to do things differently.’ Does Sturgeon? ‘This is such an important moment in Scottish politics. Nicola Sturgeon has all these new powers … [Imagine] what more we would do as Labour reformers with that potential – and [Sturgeon] is just wasting it.’
Scottish politics now boasts an all-women line-up at the helm of the three main parties. I want to understand from one battling in the fray whether the presence of three women party leaders in Holyrood really changes the nature of the debate in Scottish politics. ‘Largely no,’ Dugdale reflects. ‘If you turn on first minister’s questions on a Thursday it is just as robust as any episode of PMQs. We’re not holding back.’ Does she enjoy the weekly bout? ‘Not really’, she admits, but it is an important ‘10 minutes of my working week. I pull a mask over my face and go and do it.’ But changing its format ‘absolutely wouldn’t work. It’s political theatre – everyone’s in a contest to try and get a clip on the evening news. There’s an art and a science to that in equal measure. It’s taking a very complex issue and digesting it down into something so [people at home in] the living room [listen] … the robustness of it [is] just as strong as if it were three men.’
Does it matter having women at the top of the party? ‘Oh, absolutely. You see different subjects rise to the top.’ Dugdale says she is proud to have championed education and gender equality as an economic issue as well as a social one and is big enough to say, ‘Nicola likes to engage with them, which has kept them there.’
She is less generous about the Tories’ record. ‘I’ve had this fight several times with Ruth Davidson … the parliament will actually be dragged back because the Tories have failed to make progress. There are more men called Maurice than there are winnable positions in the Tory party.’ She is clearly passionate about representation and would like to see a law to mandate all parties to field 50-50 women and men candidates. She reveals that she would support a rule change in the Labour party to stop there being an all-male leadership team in the future.
Dugdale laughs about how she had been quizzed on the Daily Politics about the rather large number of leaders Scottish Labour has sucked in and spat out. It has had the same number of leaders – eight – since 1999 as UK Labour has had since 1976.
At the time of standing she said, ‘Regaining the trust of the people of Scotland won’t happen overnight … I have made it clear to colleagues that if elected leader I plan to do the job for many years to come.’ Soon afterwards, 20 Holyrood colleagues – including former leader Iain Gray and former leadership contenders Sarah Boyack and Neil Findlay – wrote a public letter saying they were ‘proud’ to be supporting her and backed her long-term vision.
The Scottish Labour leader’s whopping victory – 72 per cent of the vote – suggests party members knew what they were getting and wanted her plan to lift the party out of its current predicament. How confident is Dugdale of getting that backing from colleagues and the wider party after May? ‘I am acutely relaxed,’ she says. ‘I do not waste a moment on that’. And a good thing too. If Scottish Labour is serious about the path back to power, it would be well advised to have some long-term vision, values and stability at the top.
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