Leader comment: Labour risks big step backwards with Dugdale exit

Kezia Dugdale became the acceptable face of Scottish Labour after a torrid time for the party north of the border.
Kezia Dugdale became the acceptable face of Scottish Labour after a torrid time for the party north of the border.
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It is a mark of Kezia Dugdale’s achievements as Scottish Labour leader that her resignation this week came as a shock, and is being described as a serious blow for her party.

When she took over two years ago, even Ms Dugdale would have admitted that she lacked the experience required to help negotiate her way through the debris that remained of Scottish Labour after internal power struggles and public obliteration at the polls. The only question being asked back then was how long she would last before meltdown.

There have been mistakes along the way, but the bottom line is that, at the last election, Scottish Labour bounced back from the humiliating tally of just a single MP at Westminster, to seven. Whether this was all down to Ms Dugdale’s leadership is debatable, given the upsurge in Labour support across the UK as Theresa May stumbled and Jeremy Corbyn provided a coherent alternative to the Prime Minister’s confused message.

But it quickly became clear that she would not be the kind of divisive figure that made her predecessor Jim Murphy unsuitable for the job, and as well as attracting support across the Labour movement in Scotland, she had the potential to offer broader appeal. In short, she could have been electable, had it not been for the fact that her party’s traditional support had deserted before she arrived.

She was also determined to ensure that Labour in Scotland was no longer seen as a branch office of the UK party, and this required courage and conviction to fight for autonomy. It is rough justice that this may well have been her undoing, after the better-than-expected general election result emboldened her party leader.

The irony is that while Mr Corbyn has been strengthened, and Ms Dugdale has departed, he lacks that electability required to make his support in any way meaningful. The danger for Scottish Labour is that Mr Corbyn and his supporters will ensure Ms Dugdale’s replacement matches the required ideology – but is equally unelectable.

Ms Dugdale could only start the resurgence in Scotland, which was always a long-term project. The party remains fragile, despite its general election success, and the danger for Scottish Labour now is that Mr Corbyn’s strengthened position in the UK could leave the party weaker in Scotland – and back to square one.