Andrew Whitaker: Kezia Dugdale can lose war but win campaign

Kezia Dugdale's abilities as a campaigner and political organiser should not be underestimated. Picture: 'Robert Perry
Kezia Dugdale's abilities as a campaigner and political organiser should not be underestimated. Picture: 'Robert Perry
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EXAMPLE of 1987 offers hope Scottish Labour can prove itself an effective opposition, says Andrew Whitaker

Kezia Dugdale has the toughest job in Scottish politics, leading a party that appears to be on course for another hammering from the SNP in May’s election, if the opinion polls turn out to be anything like accurate.

Rather than asking if Nicola Sturgeon’s party will win, the question most pundits are asking is just how big the scale of the SNP victory will be and whether the Nationalists will manage a clean sweep of all the constituency seats on 5 May.

Dugdale showed herself willing to put her neck on the line with the plan to raise income tax by 1p to fund public services, something that was always likely to lead to a blood-and-guts war with the SNP over its flagship council-tax freeze policy.

While it’s unlikely Dugdale will be Scotland’s First Minister come 5 May, it would be foolish of the SNP to underestimate her abilities as a campaigner and political organiser.

Like her close ally and friend at Westminster, the highly effective Walthamstow Labour MP Stella Creasy, Dugdale has battled hard on areas such as curbing excessive interest rates charged by payday loan firms and has taken the fight to her opponents on issues such as low pay and the availability of affordable childcare. It’s entirely possible she will fare much better in the election than many expect, despite the overwhelming electoral odds stacked against her.

While it’s impossible to know for sure, she is likely to preside over a better campaign than Scottish Labour ran in 2011, when – to quote former Glasgow MP George Galloway – the party really “sunk to the occasion”.

The picture of Iain Gray being rushed into a Subway sandwich shop to escape protesters at Glasgow Central Station was perhaps a defining image of the campaign, which at times appeared to be turning marginal Holyrood seats into SNP strongholds.

While the unfortunate episode was not the decisive factor, it was symptomatic of what was Labour’s worst national campaign since the disaster of 1983 when Margaret Thatcher secured a majority of 144 and contrasted with a slick and ultra-efficient SNP political machine.

However, perhaps there are similarities with the position Dugdale finds herself in and that of Neil Kinnock at the 1987 general election, in that both faced a near impossible task in attempting to overturn thumping majorities held by the governing parties, the Tories and the SNP respectively.

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The obvious difference is that Dugdale has been in place as leader for just a few months, whereas Kinnock had nearly four years in charge of Labour before the 1987 election.

For all that, 29 years ago Kinnock and Labour were widely viewed to have fought the best campaign, and had dramatically improved on 1983, whatever is said about actual policy content.

Hugh Hudson, the director of the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire, made what was viewed as one of the most acclaimed election broadcasts ever in 1987, in which Kinnock was interviewed about his background.

The broadcast showed Kinnock and wife Glenys walking near the coast, with the sound provided by a speech from the Labour politician.

It was to become known as the “The first Kinnock in a thousand generations…” broadcast because of his reference to himself as being the first-ever member of his family to win a place at university.

Labour’s campaign in 1987 was also much slicker than four years previously, with smooth operator Peter Mandelson taking charge along with the party’s then rising star Bryan Gould, who would himself unsuccessfully seek election as party leader five years later.

Whatever criticism Mandelson has faced in his career – particularly over his current serial disloyalty to the current Labour leadership despite his own zero tolerance of criticism when Tony Blair was in charge – it’s widely accepted he knew a thing or two about political public relations.

Despite all this, in 1987 Labour slumped to another thumping defeat with the Tories staying in power with a majority of 102 seats in the Commons, down on 144 from the 1983 election.

Although 1987 did not take Labour much closer to power and left the Tories free to push through policies such as the poll tax, Kinnock’s party did succeed in seeing off the SDP-Liberal alliance, which in 1983 had come within just over two percentage points of Labour in terms of share of the vote, although well behind in actual Commons seats.

There is hype aplenty now that the Scottish Tories could finish ahead of Labour, although there’s little evidence that Scots are any more well-disposed towards the policies of Tory governments now than they were at the 1987 election, whatever an occasional opinion poll may suggest.

But were Kezia Dugdale to secure a significantly higher share of the vote and seats ahead of the Tories, it could at least be promoted as a fresh rejection of Toryism, particularly if she does so on the back of a campaign focused on funding public services through progressive taxation.

A strong showing from Dugdale against Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson would also be a big plus for Labour.

Dugdale, emerging with some credit from a good election campaign of the kind Kinnock enjoyed in 1987 and also establishing Labour as a competent and strong opposition, may also have to be viewed as another small mercy in the context of a heavy defeat at the hands of the SNP.

Of course, in Sturgeon, Dugdale faces an astute and formidable opponent, who has sat at the summit of Scottish politics for nearly a decade, first as Deputy First Minister and now First Minister.

However, a star turn in the campaign from Dugdale against the SNP leader may help get Scottish Labour back in the game – and at least win back the party’s right to be heard by the Scottish electorate.