When Kezia Dugdale becomes the youngest ever leader of Scottish Labour later this year, a daunting task looms. Scotland’s political landscape has changed irrevocably since the independence referendum. An emerging generation has shaken off old allegiances which once saw Labour preside as the party of working Scots.
Instead younger voters seem more disposed towards independence and the SNP. One recent poll found 80 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds intend to vote for Nicola Sturgeon in next year’s Holyrood elections. This is the generation which grew up with the Scottish Parliament as the focus of public life. They don’t remember a time when it wasn’t here and their natural inclination is not towards distant Westminster, but Holyrood and – at the moment – the SNP.
Let’s not forget that under 45s voted Yes in last year’s referendum and at the moment this group seem to represent a demographic shift towards Scotland becoming independent in the future. Maybe this is why Ms Sturgeon does not appear to be in any great rush to stage another referendum – she knows that the numbers will be on her side given a bit of patience.
And that’s why Labour is getting behind such a young leader. Ms Dugdale’s only leadership rival, Ken Macintosh, raised questions over her lack of experience for the role in a recent interview. But perhaps this is exactly what Labour needs. Ms Dugdale has proved herself to be an adept opponent facing the First Minister in the Holyrood chamber, but it is the more fundamental change that Labour must undertake to win back this lost generation.
Mr Macintosh is an able politician, but he has been at Holyrood for the best part of 20 years and his moment was lost in the 2011 leadership battle when he won among parliamentarians, but was edged out by Johann Lamont who swept up the union vote.
And this is doubtless why Ms Dugdale has been so keen to stress that she is someone who is “part of that age group” and can tap into their “hopes and aspirations”. She has spoken of the “long-term project” she will face to revive the party’s fortunes and knows that engaging younger Scots will involve more than just conducting interviews in emojis.
Under Jim Murphy, it felt like Labour was coming up with a policy a day during the election campaign. With more than three-quarters of Scottish Labour MSPs backing Ms Dugdale, the party seems to realise the scale of renewal involved. The stakes could not be higher. If Ms Dugdale fails to win back those disenchanted voters, then the shifting tide towards nationalism and independence seems like a matter of time.