Events of the next fortnight will determine whether Kezia Dugdale’s party can lay some foundations of hope for the future or face being consigned to the political scraphead for a generation, as the Conservatives threaten to usurp Labour as the official opposition north of the border.
Third place would mark the ultimate humiliation for the party of John Smith, Robin Cook and Gordon Brown which not so long ago dominated the levers of power at Holyrood and town halls across Scotland. The fall of Labour is as much down to its own failings over the past couple of decades as the rise of the SNP.
Even from the onset of Holyrood, candidates seen as troublemakers, like the garrulous but undeniably able Ian Davidson, were effectively blocked from standing in favour of those more leadership-friendly. The result has been all too clear to see in recent years, particularly with the SNP’s historic majority election win of 2011 . Voters simply saw Alex Salmond’s team of cabinet secretaries with big hitters like Nicola Sturgeon and Kenny MacAskill as a better bet for government than Iain Gray’s alternative. Labour’s turmoil in Scotland truly set in during the third parliament of 2007-11 when the party went through three leaders – Gray, Wendy Alexander and Jack McConnell – and embarked on a period of blanket “oppositionism”, attempting to thwart the fledgling nationalist minority administration at every turn.
It’s little wonder Scots felt they had not much positive to offer. As the independence debate unfolded, Labour found itself entrenched in the Better Together campaign for a No vote, in cahoots with the Tory and Liberal Democrat Westminster coalition partners. The No camp got the result. But Labour particularly felt the wrath of the burgeoning ranks of Nationalist converts among the Scottish electorate over a marriage of convenience – sealed with the Vow – with an ideological nemesis. The sole purpose, it seemed, was containing Alex Salmond, who had with the SNP established the natural party of government in post-devolution Scotland. The decline appeared to sink to an all-time low with the near wipeout which Labour suffered in the Westminster election last year.
To fall behind the Tories at Holyrood, though, would be a true nadir. But if Ms Dugdale could cling on to second spot, however narrowly, the signs are there that Labour could rebuild. After years of trying to shake the SNP taunts about being a “branch office” of the UK party, Labour in Scotland has finally got itself in a place where it needs to be. It’s clear that Kezia Dugdale is not in hock to Jeremy Corbyn who has barely registered in the Holyrood election campaign so far. Internal changes have also been pushed through which mean there are no longer any safe seats for sitting MSPs in an effort to shake up the Labour benches. It has already put paid to the chances of long-standing party figures like Michael MacMahon and Paul Martin returning to Holyrood, on the regional list at any rate.
Perhaps more crucially, recent months have seen something of a shift in the political dynamic in Scotland since both Labour and the Lib Dems proposed using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to push for tax hikes to fight austerity. This was initially proposed just days before John Swinney’s budget in March and was predictably rejected by the finance secretary who said it was way too late in the day for such a fundamental change. The backlash was as fast as it was surprising. Suddenly Swinney was under attack for passing on Tory austerity to Scots and failing to use the powers at his disposal to bring about change. It was no longer good enough to whinge about Westminster cuts from the sidelines, as the SNP had done for the previous five years. Now Scottish ministers had the power to act – but chose to do nothing.
And this has been a recurring theme of the campaign. Ms Dugdale has proved an effective performer in Holyrood and in the election hustings debates on the campaign trail so far. It’s hard to escape the lingering suspicion that the role of leadership has come to soon for her, but she had little choice to take up the mantle after Jim Murphy’s departure. A few more years heading up the opposition may see her grow into the role, just as Ms Davidson has done after initial criticism. The trouble for Ms Dugdale is the “Big Mo” towards the Nationalist cause which has swept across Scotland since early 2014, throughout the referendum, continuing through last year’s Westminster election.
It shows little sign of subsiding two years on and has largely accounted for traditional Labour voters who now back Ms Sturgeon. Labour was even branded with the “toxic” label, once synonymous with the Tories in Scotland, by one pollster this week. Ms Dugdale’s decision to campaign on a platform of tax rises does put clear blue water between her and the SNP, but whether it will persuade people to vote for Labour is another matter. This is where Ms Davidson stands to take advantage as the only party leader campaigning hard on the message that she will keep tax rates down to UK levels. And with Ms Dugdale and Willie Rennie of the Lib Dems saying they will allow their MSPs to back independence in the event of another referendum, the Tories are out to shore up No voters, even pledging to launch their own pro-Union campaign. But this is appealing to a core vote and at best may see the Tories “undertake” Labour into second spot.
Labour strategists know that to challenge the SNP in future years, a broader appeal is needed. The anti-austerity push is a start on this road, with the SNP suddenly portrayed as the party of cuts. It’s too late to stick for this election. But if Labour can cling on against the vortex which currently threatens to overwhelm it, Ms Dugdale may find the newly empowered Scottish Parliament with all its controls over tax and welfare offers as much opportunity for the opposition as it does for government.