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  1. Politics
3 January 2017updated 12 Oct 2023 11:12am

Kezia Dugdale: The ghost of Labour yet to come

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

By Julia Rampen

“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. 

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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.”

 

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