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Kezia Dugdale: The ghost of Labour yet to come

English Labour MPs would do well to listen to the leader of Scottish Labour. 

“All I want for Christmas” pipes into the empty Holyrood bar as I wait to meet Kezia Dugdale. It is late December, and I am sitting in the depths of a parliament that has been rocked by two referendums, not to mention a changing of the political guard. But when the leader of the Scottish Labour party herself arrives, in a simple black jacket and blouse, she does so calmly, and without fanfare. 

The track changes to Band Aid. We review the political shocks of the past six months. “Scottish Labour were ahead of the curve,” she says softly. “The party across the UK has a huge opportunity to look at Scotland and work out what they can take from that.”

The party should listen. If Tony Blair, that thrice-elected PM, is the ghost of Labour past, Dugdale may be the ghost of Labour yet to come. When she became leader of the Scottish Labour party in 2015, she inherited a party reeling from a general election defeat after a divisive referendum.  

The misery continued. The following May, it was the MSPs’ turn. A bloody Scottish parliamentary election saw Labour demoted to third place, behind both the SNP and a rebranded “unionist” Conservative party. This defeat was quickly followed by the Brexit vote. 

Now, Labour across the UK is walking the same post-referendum tightrope. Its attempt to appeal to both Leave and Remain voters has failed miserably, both in by-elections and national polling. 

I ask if Scottish Labour is two years ahead on the post-referendum trajectory. Dugdale suggests five. There is no point panicking, she insists: “That is the mistake - to think a few more focus groups or another poll is going to fix it.”

Instead, Labour must brace itself for a long, drawn-out, constitutional conversation. “This is what referendums do,” Dugdale says simply. “They divide communities.”

Some Labour MPs in England have been watching Dugdale closely – and not just because she holds a vital seat on the National Executive Committee. A few weeks before we meet, she outlined her plan in The Staggers for a “radical reshaping of our country along federal lines”. Shortly before his resignation, Jamie Reed, the Labour MP for Copeland in Cumbria, took up the cue with a demand for a “discrete English Labour identity”

In a united kingdom where more than 80 per cent live in England, Dugdale herself admits a perfectly symmetrical federalism would be impossible. But a commitment to “confederalism”, as she calls it, still offers the chance of an escape from the black and white world of referendum politics. 

 “The biggest lesson I have taken from our election result in May is you can’t duck, avoid or seem not to address the issue of the day, if that is what people want to talk about,” she says. “As much as we wanted to talk about tax and public services, what they really wanted to talk about was constitutionalism.

“Now we have a policy of federalism. I think that gives us a right to talk on other issues.”

Dugdale isn’t the only Scottish heavyweight to take a view on Labour’s UK predicament. In November, Gordon Brown described Brexit as a “revolt of the regions” against the “dead hand” of central government. But while the former PM is watching from the sidelines of retirement, Dugdale will be in office to see at least part of it through. 

In doing so, she will be working with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Despite her previous criticism of him, Dugdale steers clear of blaming the Labour leader in Westminster for the party’s dismal polls. 

“It breaks my heart to see Labour polling like that, because I want to see a Labour government, but I do think a big part of it is constitutional politics,” she says. 

“That doesn’t mean you have to be resigned to your future. It is about recognising the divide, and trying to close that gap.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

Photo: André Spicer
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“It’s scary to do it again”: the five-year-old fined £150 for running a lemonade stand

Enforcement officers penalised a child selling home-made lemonade in the street. Her father tells the full story. 

It was a lively Saturday afternoon in east London’s Mile End. Groups of people streamed through residential streets on their way to a music festival in the local park; booming bass could be heard from the surrounding houses.

One five-year-old girl who lived in the area had an idea. She had been to her school’s summer fête recently and looked longingly at the stalls. She loved the idea of setting up her own stall, and today was a good day for it.

“She eventually came round to the idea of selling lemonade,” her father André Spicer tells me. So he and his daughter went to their local shop to buy some lemons. They mixed a few jugs of lemonade, the girl made a fetching A4 sign with some lemons drawn on it – 50p for a small cup, £1 for a large – and they carried a table from home to the end of their road. 

“People suddenly started coming up and buying stuff, pretty quickly, and they were very happy,” Spicer recalls. “People looked overjoyed at this cute little girl on the side of the road – community feel and all that sort of stuff.”

But the heart-warming scene was soon interrupted. After about half an hour of what Spicer describes as “brisk” trade – his daughter’s recipe secret was some mint and a little bit of cucumber, for a “bit of a British touch” – four enforcement officers came striding up to the stand.

Three were in uniform, and one was in plain clothes. One uniformed officer turned the camera on his vest on, and began reciting a legal script at the weeping five-year-old.

“You’re trading without a licence, pursuant to x, y, z act and blah dah dah dah, really going through a script,” Spicer tells me, saying they showed no compassion for his daughter. “This is my job, I’m doing it and that’s it, basically.”

The girl burst into tears the moment they arrived.

“Officials have some degree of intimidation. I’m a grown adult, so I wasn’t super intimidated, but I was a bit shocked,” says Spicer. “But my daughter was intimidated. She started crying straight away.”

As they continued to recite their legalese, her father picked her up to try to comfort her – but that didn’t stop the officers giving her stall a £150 fine and handing them a penalty notice. “TRADING WITHOUT LICENCE,” it screamed.


Picture: André Spicer

“She was crying and repeating, ‘I’ve done a bad thing’,” says Spicer. “As we walked home, I had to try and convince her that it wasn’t her, it wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her who had done something bad.”

She cried all the way home, and it wasn’t until she watched her favourite film, Brave, that she calmed down. It was then that Spicer suggested next time they would “do it all correctly”, get a permit, and set up another stand.

“No, I don’t want to, it’s a bit scary to do it again,” she replied. Her father hopes that “she’ll be able to get over it”, and that her enterprising spirit will return.

The Council has since apologised and cancelled the fine, and called on its officials to “show common sense and to use their powers sensibly”.

But Spicer felt “there’s a bigger principle here”, and wrote a piece for the Telegraph arguing that children in modern Britain are too restricted.

He would “absolutely” encourage his daughter to set up another stall, and “I’d encourage other people to go and do it as well. It’s a great way to spend a bit of time with the kids in the holidays, and they might learn something.”

A fitting reminder of the great life lesson: when life gives you a fixed penalty notice, make lemonade.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.