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17 August 2015

Kezia Dugdale’s Clause Four moment? Defuse the constitutional question

Scottish Labour's new leader could learn much from Unite's approach to the referendum, says Douglas Beattie.

By Douglas Beattie

You’d be forgiven for failing to notice the contest had been taking place but Scottish Labour now has a new leader.  Following a fairly spark-free summer campaign Kezia Dugdale has emerged victorious over her lone rival (the very decent) Ken Macintosh with 72 per cent of the vote. 

Even in Scotland much of the campaign has been overshadowed by the unexpected, headline grabbing, “Corbyn surge” for the UK leadership.

Dugdale at 33 is seen as engaging, bright and an effective communicator, someone tipped for great things almost as soon as she became Lothian region MSP four years ago. However it’s painfully true that the job she’s landed ain’t quite what it used to be. 

Gone are the days when Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish and others held not just the Labour reins but also the office of First Minister as a matter of course. A party flatlining with just one MP and in opposition at Holyrood, has as the new leader puts it, “a mountain to climb.”

How will Dugdale – the sixth person to fill the role in just eight years – go about doing that? A number of things hold the key to her success the first of which will be a good working relationship with the new national leader, no matter who that turns out to be.

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Dugdale has already found herself on uncomfortable ground over front-runner Jeremy Corbyn. Having first said a victory for the Islington MP would leave the party “carping from the sidelines”, she was accused of backtracking after then claiming “I don’t think our politics are widely different.”

She will also need to kill stone dead any lingering association with her divisive predecessor Jim Murphy, who resigned in June after leading the party to its cataclysmic general election defeat. The third and possibly most important aspect is how she chooses to deal with the thorny issue of independence.

If Dugdale is to remain in post for any length of time – and goodness knows Labour in Scotland needs stability – then a new strategy on the constitutional question must be formed.  With the SNP making hay in Edinburgh and London a break with the past is needed if voters are to “take a fresh look” at the party as Dugdale has requested.

There are tens of thousands who may well return to the fold in time for the Holyrood elections next May if it can be demonstrated that Labour has had a rethink on what remains the biggest issue of the day. The party, it seems to me, will only flourish again by making the running on social policy but to do that independence must be parked. 

Unlikely it may be but Dugdale could do worse than declare Labour neutral in any future referendum (a safe enough move as there’s currently only a limited prospect of another plebiscite).  This is exactly what the trade union Unite did in the run up to last year’s historic poll.

In effect she could signal that Westminster politicians will be kept at arms length, in an instant spiking the notion of a ‘branch office’ north of the border. To strengthen the line elected representatives – from councillors, up – could be given licence to campaign as they see fit in any future referendum. 

Only a mighty optimist would expect to see Labour turn things around and beat the SNP next year but Dugdale must start carving out a distinct message right away in order to at least win back seats.  She must show that Labour understands Scotland post-referendum and how much the country has changed since the old days of absolute Labour power there. 

Political bravery is required for Scotland needs Labour, but Scottish Labour must show it is prepared to put Scottish interests first. Kezia Dugdale then has a great challenge on her hands but also a great political opportunity – she must grab it.