Leader: Daunting challenge for Scottish Labour

Scottish Labour leadership contender Kezia Dugdale. Picture: Malcolm McCurrach
Scottish Labour leadership contender Kezia Dugdale. Picture: Malcolm McCurrach
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Scottish party’s new leader must work hard to win over a generation of voters favouring SNP

Next weekend, we will learn who has won the fight to lead Scottish Labour. There are just two candidates – former deputy leader Kezia Dugdale and Ken Macintosh – and the result is not expected to throw up any surprises: Dugdale looks likely to stroll to victory.

We believe – although, admittedly, there are hardly many options – Dugdale offers the Labour Party in Scotland the best chance to begin rebuilding support.

Though no fault of his own, Macintosh is of an older generation that has lost credibility, while Dugdale might just be able to reach out to the younger voters who have turned their back on Labour in favour of supporting the SNP.

The challenge the victor faces in this contest cannot be underestimated. Since losing the 2007 election to the SNP by a single seat, Scottish Labour has seen its popularity plummet.

Last year’s independence referendum may have been lost by the Yes campaign but the SNP continues to go from strength to strength, regularly polling ahead of the combined support for the three main unionist parties.

When Jim Murphy was elected Scottish Lab­our leader last December, some predicted he would help his party regain some of the middle ground that it has lost to the nationalists. Clearly, that did not come to pass. Instead, Labour lost all but one of its Scottish MPs in May’s general election.

The leadership contest has not, it has to be said, thrown up the most scintillating debate. Rather, it’s been a drab affair, conducted by a wounded party.

Dugdale is a bright and likeable young politician who enjoys good relationships with members across the Holyrood chamber. But these qualities aren’t nearly enough to set Labour back on track for victory. The new Scottish Labour leader will, somehow, have to create a political story that appeals to a new generation of voters who, for the time being, see the SNP as the party with their interests at heart. There was a time when Labour could take a large number of Scottish voters for granted. Now that’s a luxury enjoyed by the SNP.

Although Scottish Labour is – we are repeatedly told – a separate entity from the UK party, it is hard to see how the result of the contest to succeed Ed Miliband won’t have an impact north of the Border.

Should unreconstructed left-winger Jeremy Corbyn win that race, then we may find that the Scottish party ends up to the right of him. Or would Dugdale be tempted to shift further left, in search of the votes of those who currently see the SNP as the “radical” choice?

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is a politician of considerable skill whose popularity ratings outstrip even those of her predecessor, Alex Salmond. Under her leadership, the SNP’s appeal has grown stronger.

Perhaps Sturgeon’s greatest achievement has been to persuade Scottish voters that her party’s decidedly centrist agenda is somehow left-wing. The truth and the story don’t marry up at all.

This makes the task Dugdale faces – or, should there be an upset, Macintosh – even more ­difficult.

She will have to challenge the nationalists’ radical rhetoric at the same time as formulating policies that will appeal to “middle Scotland”, which has voted SNP for almost a decade now, and shows no sign of changing its preference.

There is no quick fix for the problems currently bedevilling Scottish Labour. A substantial number of Scots believe the party no longer speaks for them and mere slogans will not be enough to persuade them otherwise.

Instead, the new leader will have to find the weaknesses in the nationalist argument and offer an alternative, positive vision.