With the UK party in disarray, can Kezia Dugdale rebuild its strength in Scotland, asks Scott Macnab
The fall of the once mighty Labour Party in Scotland will be thrown into sharp focus this week as the UK leadership contest arrives north of the Border. Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith are battling for the helm of a party riven by factionalism, catastrophic poll ratings and claims of anti-Semitism and bullying. In Scotland the party has ceased to be the official opposition after the unthinkable happened in May’s Holyrood election when Kezia Dugdale was beaten into third place by Ruth Davidson’s Tories. When Gordon Brown steps back into the political spotlight at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this weekend, he will surely reflect on a party which has sunk to a desperate low from a time, not so long ago, when its grip on the Scottish political landscape seemed indomitable.
Labour in Scotland has not escaped the infighting and factionalism which has blighted the party down south, particularly in the aftermath of the mass resignations and open rebellion which Mr Corbyn faced in recent weeks. Ms Dugdale appeared at odds with her deputy leader Alex Rowley when he demanded unity behind Mr Corbyn at the height of the walkouts. This came just days after the party leader in Scotland suggested she couldn’t do the job properly in the face of such rejection from her parliamentarians. It has also left Ms Dugdale in the opposing camp from Neil Findlay, widely seen as one of the party’s most impressive and effective politicians at Holyrood, who is again running Mr Corbyn’s campaign north of the Border.
The resignation of the country’s only Labour MP, Ian Murray, from the role of Shadow Scottish Secretary has also left us with a farcical situation, with the role now being filled by a Corbyn loyalist from the North-east of England. It was always going to be a poisoned chalice for Dave Anderson, who doubles up the role with that of Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland secretary, but he hasn’t done himself any favours with some of his interventions in the media so far. He has already suggested he doesn’t really want the job, which he described as “too much”, even suggesting a coalition with the SNP to keep out the Tories. This has left Mr Corbyn himself on the backfoot ahead of his trip to Scotland this week and forced to deny the prospect any such alliance.
It’s hard to see how this leadership contest can heal the ills at the heart of UK Labour. Mr Corbyn is widely expected to win again on the strength of his popularity among the hundreds of thousands of activists who have mobilised themselves to join Labour in the aftermath of rule changes introduced by Ed Miliband which put the membership in charge of choosing the leader. In many ways this has been a heartening example of democracy in action, the grassroots rising up against the Westminster elite. For Labour, though, which has always had social change for ordinary working people at its core, it’s hard to see how this will be achieved with Mr Corbyn at the helm. If he can’t unite his party, how can he hope to hope to reach out to the wider electorate with every poll showing him to be an election loser?
The Scottish Labour leader’s frustration showed this week as she warned that Mr Corbyn can’t escape blame for the Holyrood result in May. But she must know it will be down to her to revive the fortunes of a party which not so long ago dominated the levers of government at Holyrood and town halls across Scotland. And despite the limited success of the party’s platform of tax rises in May, Ms Dugdale is not shifting from this central policy thrust, attempting to outflank the SNP on the left. The rich should pay a 50p top rate of tax, with a one pence rate in the basic rate for the rest of us to make up for the shortfall in funding for public services and particularly schools.
New figures out today are poised to show Scotland’s public finances in their most perilous state in a generation after the oil crash, and no end to austerity in sight. Labour’s logic is clear: there’s no money left in the pot – if we want extra resources we have to raise them from Holyrood’s new income tax powers.
There is some support for change at Holyrood with the Liberal Democrats backing a 1p rise in the basic rate, while the Greens are in favour of a higher top rate. Nicola Sturgeon has even backed a 50p top rate previously, but UK-wide amid concerns that such a measure in Scotland could allow the wealthy to rearrange their tax affairs south of the Border. How would tax hikes play with hard-pressed Scots, already sceptical about the looming impact of Brexit on their finances? A few polls suggesting the public would pay more for public services does not necessarily translate to votes. The success of Ruth Davidson’s Tories in May, with their hardline against tax raises, perhaps illustrates this.
But even this was not all it seems. Labour actually came out on top of the Tories in the first vote among Scots which returns constituency MSPs, albeit by barely ten thousand. It was only the regional list vote, which tends to attract more “tactical” voting, which saw the Tories come in second. And fatally for Labour, it was the party’s traditional heartlands across west and central Scotland which truly disappeared to the Nationalists in May. Winning back this grassroots support will be pivotal if the party is to reverse its decline and finally take the fight to the SNP.
Ms Dugdale is to be admired for the stoicism and resolve with which she has handled Labour’s humiliation in May. The burden of leading a party, already in freefall, is widely acknowledged as having arrived a bit too soon for the young leader. But she has already taken a lead in pressing the agenda for progressive taxation in Scotland to tackle austerity. This is at least rising above the politics of the constitution which, long before the arrival of Mr Corbyn, the party in Scotland had simply failed to tackle effectively. The Brexit vote and its unexpected shot in the arm for the Nationalist movement has in many ways been the nightmare scenario for Ms Dugdale. It’s hard to see how Labour will come again before the unprecedented tide in support for the SNP subsides.
Only then, perhaps, might Scots be ready for a new political movement to step into the breach.