Scott Macnab: Kezia Dugdale fights for ‘Scottish’ voice

Kezia Dugdale has fought her corner but last week faced accusations she held back the UK effort. Picture: Neil Hanna
Kezia Dugdale has fought her corner but last week faced accusations she held back the UK effort. Picture: Neil Hanna
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The Scots Labour leader was stung by claims that election gains are down to the Corbyn effect, says Scott Macnab

Kezia Dugdale has been on the warpath this week, proclaiming Labour as the party of progressive politics in Scotland. It was a shot across the bow not just of the SNP, but her own internal critics within the Labour movement in Scotland amid claims that the Lothians MSP damaged the party’s progress in the recent general election campaign.

Labour’s success in Scotland, taking seven seats, exceeded all expectations as it had been flatlining in the polls with fears of a potential wipeout. But was this all down to the Jeremy Corbyn bounce? The hitherto embattled UK Labour leader emerged to lead an inspired campaign and force a hung parliament, albeit with Labour more than 60 seats behind the Tories. Ms Dugdale faced claims from the left-wing Campaign for Socialism in a report last week that she “held back the UK effort” by attacking the SNP in a way that largely silenced Jeremy Corbyn’s UK wide message. In effect this handed votes to the resurgent Tories in Scotland who swept to 13 seats.

But this reading of events surely oversimplifies the unique electoral dynamics at play in contemporary Scottish politics. Even before the Corbyn bounce had taken effect and the UK leader was still an object of ridicule in large sections of the media, Scottish Labour had turned in a surprisingly strong showing at the council elections in May, prompting the party to issue a list of seven target seats for the June election. Constituencies like Airdrie and Shotts, along with Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath as well as Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill - previous Labour strongholds since taken by the SNP - had been at the heart of a concerted Labour campaign push in the weeks leading up to the vote. Party insiders believe this Scottish strategy was as pivotal to the success north of the border as the undoubted impact of Corbyn’s sudden surge in popularity. That’s not to say that the revival of the party in the final fortnight of the campaign wasn’t pivotal in helping push Labour over the line in seats like Glasgow North East where candidate Paul Martin enjoyed a remarkable 25 point swing to win by 214 votes.

A briefing on the Labour election campaign north of the Border has been presented to MSPs and the party’s Scottish Executive which pointed to the success of a focussed campaign targeting particular seats. Interestingly the Campaign for Socialism report was penned by former MSP Lesley Brennan. But she did not attend the meeting of the party’s Scottish executive committee, on which she sits, where the presentation on the election campaign was made.

It’s also worth pointing out that Labour in Scotland, if anything, stands on more of a hard-left policy agenda than the party south of the Border. UK Labour’s tax policy came down to a vague allusion from Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell that anyone earning more than £70,000 would be classed as rich and have to pay more. There was speculation this could have meant the 45p top rate of tax coming down from its current threshold of £150,000 to £70,000 but this was never set in stone. In Scotland, where tax raising powers are devolved to Holyrood, Labour has been absolutely clear about its proposals. Not only will high earners on more than £150,000 see the top rate of tax upped from 45 pence to 50 pence, but a penny will be added to tax across the board on the basic rate. It prompted Dugdale loyalist Daniel Johnston to this week pen a pointed riposte to the Campaign for Socialism report, insisting it sought to paint the party’s individual Scottish voice as a negative.

“Voters expect Scottish Labour to bring a Scottish perspective to Labour values,” he argued in a piece for the LabourList. “That’s precisely what the party has done - and explains why we are now on the path to recovery.”

The tension over the Corbyn effect in Scotland spilled over this week when the UK Labour leader set out plans to tour marginal seats in Scotland this summer along with Ms Dugdale. It prompted the Nationalist MP Mhairi Black to attack the plans and insist that, instead of opposing the SNP, Corbyn should be getting behind her party’s progressive approach to politics both in Government at Holyrood and among its 35-strong group of MPs. It’s an alarm that has been echoed by Nationalists across the wider debate on social media and letters columns. But what do they expect from the leader of a rival political party? Perhaps after a decade on the ascendancy as the dominant force in Scottish politics, the SNP is rattled to find itself so vulnerable to a surprise Labour revival. Whether Corbyn, Dugdale or a mixture or both are responsible, much of the densely populated central Scotland political heartlands are now effectively three-way marginals, with the Tories also in the mix. The former Labour policy chief and head of the Better Together co-ordinator Blair McDougall even warned last week that it could be Ruth Davidson’s party which pose the greatest threat to a long-term revival. The clear gains which Labour was able to make as a result of Corbyn’s influence was offset by the “large scale movement” to the Tories among No voters.

And while many of the left feel that Tory support has peaked in Scotland, McDougall is clear that it may have “some way to go”. He said Labour must remain solidly opposed to independence as part of a broader strategy to win back no voters and stop “apologising” for its role in the Better Together pro-union referendum coalition which was the “only Scottish campaign which Labour has won in over a decade.”

It’s certainly the case that the Scottish leadership would rather move the political debate on to territory where it feels stronger. This includes public services, jobs, workers incomes where, Labour argues, the SNP at Holyrood and Tories at Westminster have been equally culpable in letting down ordinary Scots. And the fact is, any Labour leader who looks capable of winning, almost regardless of policy platform, will be a different proposition north of the Border and attract Scots who might otherwise migrate to the SNP in protest.