Interview: Kezia Dugdale on reform of Scots Labour

Kezia Dugdale is pushing to change Scottish Labour ahead of Holyrood elections. Picture: Toby Williams
Kezia Dugdale is pushing to change Scottish Labour ahead of Holyrood elections. Picture: Toby Williams
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KEZIA Dugdale has said she will oversee the biggest shake-up in the history of Scottish Labour in an attempt to win back ground lost to the SNP.

Speaking to Scotland on Sunday on the eve of the UK Labour Party conference, Dugdale set out her plans to make Scottish Labour a distinct entity, describing her intention to recruit the most able Holyrood candidates from the rise in membership experienced as a result of “Corbynmania”.

The new Scottish Labour leader said she wanted to open up candidate selection to the thousands of members who have joined the party in the last few months, giving them the chance to oust sitting MSPs. Yesterday Scottish Labour said almost 30,000 people were now associated with the party north of the Border – 18,824 members, 7,790 people affiliated through trade unions and other groups, plus 3,285 registered supporters.

Although not on the same scale of the post-referendum surge seen by the SNP, which has seen more than 100,000 people join Nicola Sturgeon’s party, yesterday’s figure represents a big increase from previous estimates that had Scottish Labour membership stuck at around 12,000.

Dugdale told Scotland on Sunday: “The Labour Party is a growing movement. We now have 30,000 party members or registered supporters. So they have all been contacted and encouraged to stand.”

With UK Labour undergoing a dramatic change of direction under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, Dugdale said Scottish Labour would become a “properly autonomous” party.

Dugdale said Scottish Labour would need to radically alter its relationship with the UK party if it was ever to recover from its near electoral meltdown on 7 May when it lost 40 of its 41 Westminster seats north of the Border.

Dugdale said Scottish Labour would adopt a “federal solution”, a shake-up that would make it a self governing party and dramatically reduce the influence of the UK leadership.

The Liberal Democrats are currently the only major UK-wide party to have a federal structure, with its English and Scottish parties split into regions, each of which have the final say over policy, candidate selection and organisation.

Dugdale said a radical package of detailed reforms to be unveiled shortly would tackle the charge made by former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont, who quit claiming London treated the Scottish operation as a “branch office”.

Dugdale said: “We’re committed to the idea of a more autonomous party and we recognise we’ve got to deliver that to end suggestions that the Scottish Labour Party is a branch office of anything else.

“We’re looking at a sort of federal party solution with lots more control in Scotland over the everyday workings of the party.”

Asked if the changes would amount to the biggest ever shake-up for Scottish Labour, she said: “Absolutely.”

Today Dugdale will develop her transformation theme when she addresses the UK party conference as Scottish leader for the first time.

She will say: “Under my leadership, the Scottish Labour Party will not just talk about change. We are changing. In just seven months we will go to the country with a renewed team, policies for a fairer country and a vision for modern Scotland that will set us apart from the SNP.”

Under the proposals, Scottish Labour would have sole responsibility for developing policy on the new income tax and welfare powers coming to Holyrood. Dugdale would therefore have the ability to pursue different tax and benefit policies from London.

Meanwhile, a restructuring will see local Labour parties organised around Holyrood constituencies rather than the old system based on Westminster seats – a symbolic gesture recognising the importance of the Edinburgh parliament.

Dugdale also said she would end the “control freakery” of party conferences by letting members decide what topics are debated on the Sunday of next month’s Scottish meeting in Perth.

Not all ties with UK Labour will be cut. Dugdale said Scottish Labour would continue to send delegates to UK Labour conferences and there would still be a funding link between London and Scotland.

On the selection of candidates for next year’s Holyrood election, Dugdale said it was now possible for party members to oust sitting and long-serving MSPs as candidates for next year’s Holyrood ­election.

Dugdale has pushed through the rule change suggested by her predecessor Jim Murphy, who recommended ending the “closed shop” that saw sitting MSPs protected at the top of the Holyrood list.

She said yesterday: “It’s technically possibly now for incumbent MSPs to be outranked by challengers. That [rule change] has happened.

“I am sending out a very clear message that I am looking for new people to come forward and stand for the party. There will be events at party conference where people can come forward and find out what it is like to be an MSP; what you need to do and what a selection process looks like in a very open way.”

Only members who joined before 4 July will be eligible to vote in candidate selection elections. Labour has traditionally had a rule that a candidate should be a member for a year before they can stand for parliament. However, a party source confirmed this could be waived for those thought to have exceptional qualities.

Last night SNP MSP Christina McKelvie said: “It will take more than yet another re-packaged attempt at internal restructuring to get to the root of Labour’s problems in Scotland.

“As long as they remain out of step with the people of Scotland on issues like austerity, Trident and further powers for the Scottish Parliament, they will never regain the support of the people of Scotland.”