A debt of gratitude

Kezia Dugdale gave Scottish Labour a renewed confidence – and dragged it back to contention – and we owe it to her to build upon that legacy, writes Sheila Gilmore

As a party we owe a great deal to Kezia Dugdale’s willingness to ‘step up to the plate’ in the difficult period following the 2015 general election.  The relief that followed the result of the 2014 referendum was not matched by any strategy for that – or any other – outcome. We wrongly assumed that ‘normal’ politics would resume, failing to appreciate  how far Scottish politics remained divided along the ‘Yes’/’No’ lines of the referendum.  This allowed the Scottish National party to complete their self identification with ‘Scotland’, and by extension any opposition as being ‘not Scottish’.

Dugdale realised that we could not ignore the constitutional question, and just wish it away, but equally that we had to keep talking about the things which would really make a difference to people in Scotland – health, social care, education and jobs. In order to get a hearing on the latter, Dugdale knew she had to establish a clear Labour position on the former. So in the last year she established Labour’s clear opposition to a second independence referendum. Any scintilla of doubt, as Dugdale occasionally discovered to her cost, moves the debate away from the issues we want to debate back on to the constitution, something the SNP love because it diverts attention from their performance in government.

It is a difficult balance to strike but over the last two years, Dugdale and her Holyrood team have made considerable progress in exposing poor performance by the Scottish government and its limited ambitions. Dugdale persistently pressed home on the facts of decline in attainment in Scottish schools, of the price paid by college students (often from less well-off backgrounds) for the flagship SNP free university tuition policy, of the growing GP crisis, and the hospital wards partially closed due to a shortage of nurses. She kept going in the face of being told to stop ‘talking down’ Scotland’s nurses/teachers/children. Finally this year the gloss has worn off, and the case Labour has been making contributed to the huge fall in the SNP vote we saw in June.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and there are plenty of critics in Scottish Labour now saying that we could have done better and that winning seven seats is nothing to write home about. But no one from any ‘wing’ of the party, four weeks out from general election polling day (just after the local elections) was expecting even that, and there were real fears that even our one remaining seat could be lost. In politics you can be pushing away at a seemingly immovable object, unaware of how you are weakening it, until suddenly it gives way. Without the work of the last two years that would not have happened.

But there is a lot still to do. The SNP were complacent this year, thinking they had become the new establishment in Scottish politics. They will not make that mistake next time around. We need to be working up the policies we would implement, not just criticise their failures. With the SNP no longer with an overall majority in Holyrood we could, with some surefooted working with others, see some of our policies carried. Scottish Labour under Dugdale went into the 2016 Holyrood elections with a radical policy programme, based on using the extended tax powers now available.

Dugdale is a great role model for women in the party, and as a strong supporter of the 50:50 campaign, for women in politics generally. It is often said that when promotion opportunities arise, not just in politics, women too often think of the reasons why they might not be qualified. Harriet Harman spoke of this recently in relation to her decision not to stand for the Labour leadership in 2010. Dugdale has shown the way for others to follow, and hopefully they will.

There’s a Scottish saying ‘I ken’t his faither’, which is essentially a put down to those seen to be getting above themselves. But it also acts as a means of sapping confidence and telling people to know their place. I think women particularly suffer from this. Our attrition rate in Scottish leaders  is something we must take a good hard look at. We need to nurture and support our leaders and help grow the next generation. The pressures of leadership in a 24 hour news cycle, and a social media watching your every move, are much greater than they used to be. That does not mean we should not debate and disagree with our leaders, but we need to think harder about the way we do it.

Thank you Kezia for getting us back into contention, and giving us renewed confidence in ourselves. Let us make sure we do not throw away that legacy.

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Sheila Gilmore is a member of the Progress strategy board. She tweets @SheilaGilmore49

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Credit: Richard Gardner

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