Tom Peterkin: Kezia Dugdale faces challenging Conference

KEZIA Dugdale is a formidable performer on television and a personable individual – two qualities that stand her in good stead as she takes on the unenviable task of trying to revive the fortunes of the Scottish Labour Party.

The Scottish Labour conference will be the latest test for the new leader. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

She will also need to demonstrate steely resolve as she tackles the mess left for her by the years of Scottish Labour complacency that has left her party at such a low ebb.

As she heads for Perth tomorrow for Scottish Labour’s autumn conference her qualities will be tested to the full.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Dugdale’s first Scottish Labour conference as leader will prove to be a challenging gathering full of tricky conundrums and contradictions that will test her leadership to the full.

Top of the list of contentious issues is Scottish Labour’s stance on nuclear weapons, which is likely to be determined during a debate this Sunday, the last day of conference.

With evidence of strong support for abandoning Trident among the trade unions and Labour’s grassroots members, there is a very real possibility that Scottish Labour departs from UK policy on this issue.

Trident, of course, has proved a divisive issue at a UK level, with Jeremy Corbyn’s belief in unilateral disarmament clashing with the party’s multi-­lateral policy.

If, as predicted, Scottish Labour votes for a ­unilateral stance it will also be at odds with UK ­policy, creating a fissure that will be exploited by the party’s opponents.

On TV this week, Dugdale was challenged on the prospect of the two arms of Labour pointing in different directions on Trident.

Gamely, she talked of giving members “the space” to debate the issue and the party operating in a “more federal manner”.

With some optimism, the Scottish Labour leader said there would be “a process” for working through and resolving policy conflicts that arise north and south of the Border.

Quite how such a divergence in approach would be resolved is difficult to imagine and it is hard to escape the impression that total confusion will ensue.

But such are the perils of Dugdale’s desire for her arm of the Labour Party to have more autonomy – a route that must be followed if the Scottish party is to escape from the accusation that it is simply a “branch office” of London.

As Dugdale grapples with these complications, the Conservatives sense a chance to pinch support from Labour.

Writing on the Conservative Home website, the Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson claimed Scottish Labour’s drive for more autonomy and its manoeuvrings on Trident did not reflect “the day-to-day concerns” of Scots looking for an alternative to the SNP.

While acknowledging that the Scottish Conservatives were in “no position to crow” over the difficulties of a rival party, Davidson made a pitch to Labour voters.

Davidson said she would plant the Tories “on the centre ground of Scottish politics”, advocating a blue collar Conservatism that would tackle class privilege and inequality.

That approach would be combined with presenting the Scottish Conservatives as the party determined to stand up for Scotland remaining within the United Kingdom.

The tribal nature of Scottish politics is such that it is difficult to see droves of Labour supporters forsaking Dugdale for Davidson.

Nevertheless, Davidson’s overtures are something else Dugdale has to deal with as she contemplates the challenges ahead.