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28 September 2016updated 20 Aug 2021 9:20am

In Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour has picked an unlikely winner

The party leader is making gains internally at least. 

By Julia Rampen

Kezia Dugdale did not become the leader of Scottish Labour in the most auspicious of circumstances. She succeeded Jim Murphy, who lasted just six months in the job before losing his Westminster seat in the 2015 general election. She herself has survived one year, but not without rumours of a coup.

And so far, she has had little reward. Labour lost 14 seats in the 2016 Scottish parliament elections, and not just to the auld enemy, the SNP, but a seemingly decrepit one, the Tories. She backed the losing candidate in the recent Labour leadership contest, Owen Smith. 

Yet Dugdale has firm fans within Scottish Labour, who believe she could be the one to transform the party into a vote-winning force once more. Why?

First, by the dismal standards of Scottish Labour, Dugdale is something of a winner. Through the national executive committee, she has secured the internal party changes demanded by every leader since 2011. Scottish Labour is now responsible for choosing its own Westminster candidates, and creating its own policy. 

And then there’s the NEC seat itself. The decision-making body is the main check on the Labour leadership’s power, and Dugdale secured an extra seat for Scottish Labour. Next, she appointed herself to it. As a counterweight to Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, Dugdale now has influence within the party that extends far outside Holyrood. The Dundee-based Courier’s take on her NEC victories was: “Kezia Dugdale completes 7-0 Labour conference victory over Jeremy Corbyn.”

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As this suggests, Dugdale’s main challengers in Scotland are likely to come from the Corbyn camp. Alex Rowley, her deputy leader, backed Corbyn. But Labour activists, at least, are battle weary after two referendums, a general election and a Scottish parliament election within the space of two years. One well-connected source told me: “I think it’s possible we haven’t hit rock bottom in Scotland yet, so the scale of the challenge is enormous.” 

Polls are also harder to ignore in a country where there is just one Labour MP, Ian Murray, who resigned from the shadow cabinet in June. A YouGov exit poll of the leadership election found Smith beating Corbyn in Scotland by 18 points (in every other part of Britain, members opted for Corbyn). Observers of Scottish politics note that the most impressive party leaders, Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson, were given time and space to grow. 

In policy terms, Dugdale does not stray too far from Corbyn. She is anti-austerity, and has tried to portray both the SNP and the Tories as enemies of public service. She has attacked the same parties for using the Scottish referendum and the EU referendum to create division in turn. In her speech to conference, she declared: “Don’t let Ruth Davidson ever tell you again that the Union is safe in Tory hands.”

So long as Labour looks divided, a promise of unity will always fall flat. But if the party does manage to come together in the autumn, Dugdale will have the power to reshape it north of the border, and consolidate her grip on Scottish Labour.