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16 August 2015

John McTernan: Kezia Dugdale’s greatest threat may come from her own side

Kezia Dugdale is a formidable politician - but she'll have to watch her back, says John McTernan.

By John McTernan

Scottish Labour has a new leader – Kez Dugdale. Now, I know that the election of a new Scottish Labour is at the ‘Dog Bites man’ end of the market  – she is, after all, the sixth leader in eight years. In contrast, the SNP have had just two in the same period – Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon. Leadership stability is not the only thing that has helped the SNP to gain and retain power, but the revolving door at the top of Scottish Labour has clearly no worked as a strategy. What is the chance that sixth time is a charm and that Kez Dugdale will be able to rebuild the party in Scotland. Substantial, actually, for three reasons.

The first is the sheer ability of Kez. Those who have known her, for a long or a short time, knew that she was going to be leader one day – the question was never whether, but only when. She is the outstanding Scottish Labour politician of her generation and has shown that not just in her overwhelming victory with 72 per cent of the vote. Her public performances are among the nest of any Labour politician in the UK currently. Just watch her on TV or hear her on the radio and you see a politician who is a message machine, but one who speaks fluently and compellingly too not merely the platitudes of political spin. Week in, week out as Deputy Leader she trounced Nicola Sturgeon in First Minister’s Questions. (FMQs). Always better informed, more relaxed, sharper and just funnier. But there’s the rub, Scottish journalists will tell you, no-one cares about FMQs, it just doesn’t make any difference. They are wrong.

Paradoxically, this is the second reason for a studied confidence in Kez. Rather than listening to the conventional wisdom of the lobby and playing within their political frame she has chosen to force political issues onto the agenda at FMQs. She campaigned so successfully against the mega-prison for women that the SNP Justice Minister to abandon plans for it. Kez’s relentless focus on the scandalous lack of educational attainment for working class children has forced Nicola Sturgeon to adopt Blairite educational policies. Tony Blair’s London Challenge is now official Scottish Government policy. Not just because it works, but because the First Minister needed an answer to Kez’s relentless questioning. It is a mark of successful opposition to simply successfully oppose – that in itself is rarely enough achieved. The great opposition leaders, though, do more. They change government policies by changing the political weather.

This is the third reason for studied optimism for Scottish Labour. The SNP just aren’t all that. They claim to be social democrats but they have not redistributed a penny to working class families while they have been in government. Instead, they have constructed a middle class welfare state – free prescriptions, free tuition and the council tax freeze are all money shovelled straight into the pockets of Kelvinside Man and Morningside Woman. In addition, the SNP have been consistently illiberal as a government. It’s not just that that they dissemble and frustrate the freedom of Information laws. Nor even that they deny Parliament officials access to the information needed to scrutinise government policy effectively. It’s that they bully and bribe, cajole and coerce autonomous organisations so that they can have a civil society free of ideas or organisations that contest the SNP Scottish Government view. That makes it heard for an opposition to gain traction, but it is a strength which is also conceals a profound weakness. The point is that if you have truly won the battle of ideas then you do not need to suppress dissent or debate. 

At a very basic level the nationalists fear free debate because – as in the referendum – facts are their enemy. This is where a forensic critique from Kez can pay off – as it did when she successfully forced the SNP Scottish Government to accept the true cost of their policy of full fiscal autonomy. (I know, I know. That sounds dry as dust. But it means a £15bn cut in public spending in Scotland – in a country whose GDP is around £100bn). In fact, the SNP were forced to repudiate what had been their flagship policy during the election campaign because Kez had made it too toxic for them.

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None of this is a silver bullet. But that’s because there is no silver bullet. It was a long haul that took the SNP to power – it will be a long haul that brings them down. Kez has to get the values right – equality, pluralism, localism – and base a critique of the SNP firmly on them. It has to be a sustained and forensic critique. The truth will out, but only over time. 

Kez’s biggest problem will not be the SNP. It will be her own party. She made a mistake in not standing on a ticket. Her dominance in the party would have ensured anyone she put on a ticket with her would have been elected deputy. Wrongly she did not do that – and she got Fife MSP Alex Rowley instead. This could well be a problem.

There’s a well-known story of a newly elected Labour backbencher sitting in the House of Commons looking at the Tories across the chamber. “That’s what the enemy look like,” she says. “No,” says an older MP, “that’s the opposition. The enemies are all around you.” That is the problem Kez will have. There are serial disloyalists in the Scottish Labour Party, people whose aim is to drag down leaders they never wanted in the first place. It doesn’t matter what your majority and mandate is from true party from Day One they will scheme and plot to remove you. Kez has to grip the party firmly, directly and immediately. Otherwise, this time next year we will be talking about Labour’s seventh leader in nine years.

John McTernan was chief of staff to Jim Murphy. 

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