The newly elected Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, delivered her first major speech this week announcing “radical policies on redistribution and reform” to come. She appealed to the left of the party and laid out her challenge to the SNP – “those who would exploit rather than end injustice will have to explain why they won’t act.”
During a speech in which she drew upon her personal “lived experience” of socialism, Dugdale attacked the SNP for their “left wing posturing” which had to be replaced by real “socialist policy”. In a full-frontal assault, she said that if “you believe in the redistribution of power and wealth, as I do, you’d better get ready to say how you’ll achieve it.” With the powers of further devolution and control over income tax to come, she implied that there was now nowhere to hide for the SNP when it came to creating a more equal society.
It is clear that Dugdale is determined to fuel a more pluralistic Scotland, one in which the achievements of the SNP can be more openly questioned, particularly on addressing inequality. Whilst the newly named and reformulated Ministerial portfolios allows the party to take the arguments to the SNP Government on their own terms, she has also stated that Labour need to face the people of Scotland rather than face-off against Government Ministers. Dugdale knows that rebuilding trust and encouraging the public to listen to the party again is one of her most formidable challenges, but there are some promising signs.
Evidence from recent TNS polling has shown that the public’s satisfaction with the SNP’s management of key public services – education, health among them – is low and a view is taking hold that the SNP aren’t as left-wing as they are cracked up to be. (It’s certainly taken some time.)
Recognising this, the SNP are set to roll-out a campaign demonstrating their achievements and credentials in Government, whilst the First Minister is set to lay out a new ‘bold’ programme for government. However, with the Scottish Budget coming up which will include proposals to vary income tax rates, SNP Finance Secretary, John Swinney, has a clear cut opportunity to demonstrate his party’s political will on equality and redistribution. Of course, political realities mean that this could slim the SNP’s middle class support and this decision is exactly where Dugdale wants to squeeze the SNP. Dugdale’s “radical policies on redistribution” suggests she would be prepared to make income tax rises and threaten the SNP’s mantle.
Consistent with her fighting spirit, Dugdale will throw the kitchen sink at next year’s Holyrood elections, but 2016 is an unwinnable election for Scottish Labour. With this knowledge, she can talk about “the hard choices that come with power” without having any, until at least 2021. Dugdale is a policy geek and won’t make policy declarations on the hoof, but she has the space to think radically and will look to provoke reaction and debate across Scotland.
Dugdale’s immediate challenge is her own party. Scottish Labour would be wise to take a leaf out of the SNP’s big book of discipline and fully support the new leader and cull any in-fighting which has dogged them for time immemorial. She is moving quickly with authority to re-brand and refresh the party with creative policy thinking and new candidates. But she has taken on one of the hardest jobs in politics and she will need time to rebuild support. The relationship with UK Labour and handling the leadership election is much trickier and Dugdale has found it difficult to position herself for its conclusion.
Dugdale has refused to back one candidate, opting for the line: “I would be delighted to work with any of the four leadership candidates”. Though this reflects her diplomatic and collegiate style, sitting on the fence is inconsistent with her bold challenge to the SNP. Whilst previously stating that the party would end up “carping from the sidelines” under Jeremy Corbyn, she has subsequently rowed back after Corbyn’s rise. However, she did not go as far to appoint Corbyn’s campaign leader in Scotland, Neil Findlay MSP, to her Shadow Cabinet.
If elected, Corbyn would pose a challenge to the SNP as he truly intends to “walk-the-walk” when it comes to left-wing politics, but it also creates an opportunity for the SNP to argue that they are closer to Corbyn than the Scottish Labour leader herself, allowing them to play upon the division between Corbyn and Dugdale. Close Dugdale ally, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, Ian Murray, has already suggested that he may not sit in a Corbyn-cabinet.
Dugdale has told journalists that she will “decide what happens here in Scotland”. Whoever is elected UK Labour must surely recognise this and realise that party autonomy in Scotland combined with a period of stability with a new, young leader who is detached from the past is exactly what is required to challenge the SNP.