Do voters really want anti-austerity policies? Kezia Dugdale is about to find out

The Scottish Labour leader goes into the Holyrood elections pledging a penny on income tax, and to restore the 50p tax rate. Conventional wisdom says that's electoral suicide.

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In August last year, I spoke to Kezia Dugdale just before she was elected as the new leader of Scottish Labour - the sixth in eighth years. Her greatest challenge, she told me, was to answer a simple question: what is the point of Labour? "There were 160 different policies in our manifesto in Scotland . . . 160 policies and nobody knew what we were for." 

Eight months later, Dugdale faces the prospect that Labour - for so long the dominant force in Scottish politics - could come third in tomorrow's Holyrood elections behind the SNP and the Conservatives. No one expected the party's revival to be swift, but if it does trail behind the Tories, the biggest factor that will save her job is that no one else wants it.

To Dugdale's credit, she has made bold decisions without apeing the confrontational manner of her immediate predecessor Jim Murphy. Labour's dire prospects required a big gamble - which she delivered with her promise in February that a Labour administration would raise income tax by a penny across the board, and restore the 50p top rate to ask those with "broader shoulders" to contribute more. Generations of politicians (including Tony Blair and Gordon Brown) have believed that going into an election promising to raise taxes is suicidal. What makes her think differently? "I took over as leader of the Labour party after we went from having 41 MPs to one MP, so the electorate in Scotland sent us a pretty loud and clear message that they wanted the Labour party to change," she says. "People wanted a much clearer sense of what the Labour party was about. This year we have a much cleaner, a much simpler message that we can use the powers of parliament to stop the cuts."

She claims that her intervention "changed the nature of the debate", dragging the political conversation away from constitutional issues - the SNP's favoured turf - and towards the question of public spending. This is the first Holyrood election where the devolved administration has serious powers to change tax rates. "So instead of just being a question of how we divvy up a pot of money to spend on schools and hospitals and public services, for the first time we’re talking about whether that pot of cash should be grown."

The SNP's Nicola Sturgeon has called the tax plan "daft", arguing that it would lose money by driving higher earners across the border to England. Attentive readers will know this is the same argument advanced by George Osborne for cutting the 50p rate in the first place: essentially, you can't have high taxes on the wealthy because they'll only find a way to avoid paying them. Was Dugdale surprised to hear the same argument coming from Sturgeon? "I wasn’t surprised, but I was hugely disappointed because Nicola Sturgeon has made her celebrity across the United Kingdom as an anti-austerity champion . . . Her last budget just passed on £500m worth of cuts. And she’s refusing to tax the rich: she’s opposing a top rate tax of 50p and she’s opposing our plans to use the income tax powers on the basic rate. So I think her anti-austerity credentials are in absolute chaos."

When Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader, there was some chatter from his supporters on exactly this point - that Scotland voted SNP because it was an anti-austerity party, and Labour's response should be to move left. But most of the Scottish commentators, from across the political spectrum, who I spoke to at the time poured cold water on this idea. The SNP's appeal had little to do with being anti-austerity, they said, except as part of a broader anti-Tory, anti-Westminster feeling. The party also tapped into nationalist sentiments - the clue is in the name - which appealed to voters on a deeper level than dry economic debates. 

In any case, the idea that the SNP was a full-blooded left-wing party was largely confined to its own rhetoric. The IFS deemed its May manifesto more fiscally conservative than Ed Miliband's offer. And at its conference in Aberdeen last year, the party felt reminiscent of New Labour: same message discipline, same reassurance to business and the middle class, same support from the The (Scottish) Sun.

Those facts are something the Westminster Labour party should remember as it tries to plot the long, slow course to regaining Scottish MPs. During the Holyrood campaign, Jeremy Corbyn has visited Scotland only once - a tour of Edinburgh East with Dugdale. She is diplomatic about the reception he received - "yes, there were queues of selfies. I can't compare the queues in Edinburgh with the queues in London because I don’t know what I’m comparing" - but the fact he has not made a return visit tells its own story. When I ask if Dugdale finds the Labour shadow cabinet too London-centric, she reminds me that there is only one Labour MP with a Scottish seat, Ian Murray. "I would love more Scottish MPs to be in the UK cabinet but there’s a bit of an arithmetic problem." She laughs. "We’ve got 100 per cent membership of Scottish MPs in the cabinet, which is a pretty good result."  

Negotiating a relationship with Westminster is one of her most difficult tasks, and takes place in the shadow of her predecessor Johann Lamont's complaint about being treated like a "branch office". When I ask which English polticians are assets on the campaign trail in Scotland, she names four members of "the sisterhood": Stella Creasy, Yvette Cooper, Alison McGovern, Jess Phillips. "[Those] are four names that are right at the forefront of my mind when I think about who’s got my back, who’s cheering me on, who’s there whenever I need them." As evidence of her autonomy, though, she cites the "concordat" signed with Corbyn which places her in charge of Scottish Labour policies. Ironically, it means her section of the party officially takes the Labour leader's personal position on Trident - against - rather than her own, or that of most Labour MPs - for multilateral, rather than unilateral, disarmament.

Dugdale has made education the centerpiece of her politics, arguing that the Scotland's schools have not prospered on the SNP's watch. But even there she cannot escape the baggage of previous Labour actions. For example, when 17 Edinburgh schools were found to have structural defects that forced them to close, it was quickly noted that they were built using private financial initiatives, a policy championed by Labour. Wasn't that frustrating? "Well, we’re talking about 17 schools in Edinburgh which were built in 2001, which predates me even being a member of the Labour party, let alone being an elected policitian," Dugdale replies. "But what I would say is that council at the time was faced with a choice between using private financial initiatives to rebuild schools or continuing 18 years of Tory decline – let them fall into rack and ruin. So they went for the to option of PFI. What really sticks in my throat is the SNP's opposition to Private Finance Initiatives, because they are using them right now. All they did was change the name." 

The left-right axis is not the only one where Kezia Dugdale has to calibrate her position carefully. The SNP's opponents accuse it of "waving the flag" - bringing up a second referendum whenever uncomfortable questions arise about Scotland's schools, hospitals or police forces. Meanwhile, the Conservatives, under their internet-friendly Scottish leader Ruth Davidson, are selling themselves both with her personal popularity and as the only true defenders of Unionism. Labour once again is caught in the middle.

"There’s lots of things wrong with both of those sentiments," says Dugdale. "Let me start with the Union one. It was Ruth Davidson’s Tories who, within hours of the [Scottish] referendum, were campaigning for English votes for English laws, which is hugely divisive if you’re trying to hold the United Kingdom together. And it was Ruth Davidson’s party who put Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket on billboards across England and tried to set Scotland and England against each other. And it was Ruth Davidson’s party that has the whole United Kingdom on pause, so they can have a European Union referendum which is really a proxy for a Tory leadership contest. It’s Ruth Davidson’s Tories that are stripping back the welfare state and attacking social security which sets working people against each other. AndI don’t think those are really the actions of a party that is really serious about protecting the United Kingdom."

She's not finished. "On that second point, about a strong opposition – well, the SNP have been in power for nine years, and for half that time they’ve required the votes of the Tories to pass their budgets." 

It's clear that Labour is still feeling its way to dealing with the post-devolution settlement. Dugdale won't be drawn on whether there is a democratic deficit for English voters, who don't have a parliament of their own ("that’s an entirely an argument that England should have") but she does reveal that her advisors are in regular contact with Carwyn Jones, the leader of Labour in Wales. "Believe it or not that didn’t happen before I became leader. Devolved nations didn’t really speak to each other and share ideas. But, I mean, Carwyn is an enthusiastic advocate for the Welsh assembly having more powers and he is in a much stronger position leading the Welsh Labour party because he’s always put Wales first."

So if more powers for Scotland were also on offer, what would she want? "I am so done talking about powers," she says. "We need to stop talking about what we can’t do and focus on what we can do. And I have evidenced what you can do with the new powers that are coming. We’ve talked already about tax in particular, and there’s lots of things we can do with the new welfare powers as well."

It's a rare moment of exasperation from a leader who even her opponents agree is warm, friendly and astonishingly upbeat about the thankless task she has taken on. However, mention of a second referendum is also enough to draw a long sigh. "We spent two and half years in Scotland debating the constitution. It’s recognised globally that we had a hugely healthy, democratic, lively, process where 85 per cent of the population went out and cast a vote. And we all did so on the promise that it was a once in a lifetime, once in a generation opportunity, and whatever a generation is it’s more than five years."

OK, no support for a second referendum, then. Which leaves the biggest question. Does Kezia Dugdale now know what Labour is for? "It’s to protect public services, end austerity and invest in education."

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.