Leaders: People & policies matter for Scots Labour

Getting away from 'branch office' status will be no use for Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour without a team that is electable. Picture: John Devlin
Getting away from 'branch office' status will be no use for Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour without a team that is electable. Picture: John Devlin
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KEZIA Dugdale’s pledge that Scottish Labour will become “properly autonomous”, removing the influence of the party’s UK leadership on policy and direction, makes sense. But it’s hardly a new idea.

Leader after leader of Labour north of the Border has said much the same, claiming they would ensure that, under their stewardship, the party would have a distinctive Scottish identity.

Fresh talent on the Labour benches would also be good for Holyrood

Time and again, however, Scottish Labour has been accused – with some justification – of ­being regarded by senior figures in London as little more than a branch office.

For the sake of her party’s fortunes in Scotland, Dugdale must be allowed by colleagues to forge that distinctive identity.

The SNP’s dismissal of the party as “London Labour” was hugely effective not only because it was a punchy soundbite but also because it had the ring of truth about it.

When Scottish Labour’s last but one leader, Johann Lamont, quit last year, she said that ­interference by colleagues in London was a key factor in her decision. So Dugdale may have a fight on her hands as she tries to make the break with the party south of the Border.

An even bigger challenge, perhaps, will be persuading voters that her Labour Party’s priority is what concerns them rather than what might be beneficial for her colleagues in England. ­Dugdale has said she wants Labour to achieve a “federal solution”, which would make it self-governing and dramatically reduce the influence of the UK leadership. This, she says, would “put to bed” those “branch office” accusations.

But Scottish Labour – part of a UK-wide party – will never defeat the SNP in a battle over who is more distinctively Scottish. And it would be a mistake for Dugdale to put too much energy into that battle.

What matters when it comes to elections are policies and the impression of competence.

The SNP did not begin its impressive rise to power because Scots had been seized by a nationalist fervour – though undoubtedly some have now been – but because the party was energised, ambitious, and confident at a time when Labour looked weary.

Dugdale has confirmed that it is now possible for party members to oust sitting MSPs as candidates for next year’s Holyrood election.

Members who had their positions at the top of regional lists protected are now vulnerable to challenges. It may be painful for some of those members to face the possibility of deselection but this is a necessary step if Labour is to ­become any kind of force in Scottish politics.

The fact is that beyond a handful of MSPs, ­Labour’s ranks at Holyrood are an uninspiring bunch, elected by accident in 2011 when the party suffered unexpected losses in a number of constituencies.

Fresh talent on the Labour benches would be good not only for Dugdale’s party but also for Holyrood, where a powerful SNP government will require a powerful opposition to maintain the checks and balances democracy demands.

Dugdale has called on new candidates to step forward and, if she can find some of intelligence and integrity (with a dash of low cunning) then she might have the makings of a credible team.

Just a few years ago, Labour dominated Scottish politics. The party assumed that victory was a given. But now Dugdale leads a party that is fighting Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives for the right to be the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament next year.

The work Kezia Dugdale is doing to make her party independent is important, but it is not the be all and end all.

Unless she can also produce a team that is worth taking seriously, and a slate of policies that chime with Scottish voters, all she will have achieved is a spot of deckchair rearrangement.

A successful watchdog must have teeth

THE case of Glasgow pensioner Janet McKay is desperately sad. The 88-year-old, who had dementia, was missing for more than a week before her body was discovered.

It later emerged that information about a possible sighting had not been passed on the police inquiry team.

It must be pointed out that the McKay family was quick to praise the police for its handling of the investigation. The failure to pass on details of a sighting will now be examined by the Police Investigations and Review Commissioner and, until that process is complete, it would not be wise to comment on the specifics of this case.

But it is clear that confidence in Police Scotland has taken a further knock.

In July, John Yuill and Lamara Bell died following a car crash. They lay undiscovered in their car for days, despite a sighting of the vehicle being reported to a police control room.

This followed a string of controversies, not least the routine deployment on patrol of armed officers, and the excessive use of stop and search powers.

The chief constable of Police Scotland, Sir Stephen House, announced last month that he is to stand down at the end of this year. His successor faces a Herculean task in rebuilding confidence in the national force.

The former chairman of the Scottish Police Authority, Vic Emery, was recently replaced by Andrew Flanagan, and he too has a huge job in front of him. The SPA acts on behalf of all of us to hold Police Scotland to account – and so far it has come up short in carrying out that important role.

So perhaps it is time for an extensive examination of that body’s working – and if necessary, a clear-out.

Scots have many reasons to lack confidence in the SPA, which has failed to raise concerns about the direction in which Police Scotland was travelling.

A new authority, with members appointed in the most transparent possible way, might go some way towards restoring that confidence.

It is in all of our interests for Police Scotland to be a success. A key part of achieving that is ensuring the watchdog that oversees the force has teeth.