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Kezia Dugdale: The ghost of Labour yet to come

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

“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. 

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.”

 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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Why Jeremy Corbyn’s evolution on Brexit matters for the Scottish Labour party

Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard, an ideological ally of Corbyn, backs staying in the customs union. 

Evolution. A long, slow, almost imperceptible process driven by brutal competition in a desperate attempt to adapt to survive. An accurate description then by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, of Labour’s shifting, chimera of a Brexit policy. After an away day that didn’t decamp very far at all, there seems to have been a mutation in Labour’s policy on customs union. Even McDonnell, a long-term Eurosceptic, indicated that Labour may support Tory amendments when the report stages of the customs and trade bills are finally timetabled by the government (currently delayed) to remain in either “The” or “A” customs union.

This is a victory of sorts for Europhiles in the Shadow Cabinet like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer. But it is particularly a victory for Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard. A strong ally of Jeremy Corbyn who comes from the same Bennite tradition, Leonard broke cover last month to call for exactly such a change to policy on customs union.

Scotland has a swathe of marginal Labour-SNP seats. Its voters opted voted by a majority in every constituency to Remain. While the Scottish National Party has a tendency to trumpet this as evidence of exceptionalism – Scotland as a kind-of Rivendell to England’s xenophobic Mordor – it’s clear that a more Eurocentric, liberal hegemony dominates Scottish politics. Scotland’s population is also declining and it has greater need of inward labour through migration than England. It is for these reasons that the SNP has mounted a fierce assault on Labour’s ephemeral EU position.

At first glance, the need for Labour to shift its Brexit position is not as obvious as Remainers might have it. As the Liberal Democrat experience in last year’s general election demonstrates, if you want to choose opposing Brexit as your hill to die on… then die you well may. This was to some extent replicated in the recent Scottish Labour Leadership race. Anas Sarwar, the centrist challenger, lost after making Brexit an explicit dividing line between himself and the eventual winner, Leonard. The hope that a juggernaut of Remainer fury might coalesce as nationalist resentment did in 2015 turned out to be a dud. This is likely because for many Remainers, Europe is not as high on their list of concerns as other matters like the NHS crisis. They may, however, care about it however when the question is forced upon them.

And it very well might be forced. One day later this year, the shape of a deal on phase two of the negotiations will emerge and Parliament will have to vote, once and for all, to accept or reject a deal. This is both a test and an incredible political opportunity. Leonard, a Scottish Labour old-timer, believes a deal will be rejected and lead to a general election.

If Labour is to win such an election resulting from a parliamentary rejection of the Brexit deal, it will need many of those marginal seats in Scotland. The SNP is preparing by trying to box Labour in. Last month its Westminster representatives laid a trap. They invited Corbyn to take part in anti-Brexit talks of opposition parties he had no choice but to reject. In Holyrood, Nicola Sturgeon has been ripping into the same flank that Sarwar opened against Richard Leonard in the leadership contest, branding Labour’s Brexit position “feeble”. At the same time the Scottish government revealed a devastating impact assessment to accompany the negative forecasts leaked from the UK government. If Labour is leading a case against a “bad deal”,  it cannot afford to be seen to be SNP-lite.

The issue will likely come to a head at the Scottish Labour Conference early next month, since local constituency parties have already sent a number of pro-EU and single market motions to be debated there. They could be seen as a possible challenge to the leadership’s opposition to the single market or a second referendum. That is, If these motions make it to debate, unlike at national Labour Conference in 2017, where there seemed to be an organised attempt to prevent division.

When Leonard became leader, he stressed co-operation with the Westminster leadership. Still, unlike the dark “Branch Office” days of the recent past, Scottish Labour seems to be wielding some influence in the wider party again. And Scottish Labour figures will find allies down south. In January, Thornberry used a Fabian Society speech in Edinburgh, that Enlightenment city, to call for a dose of Scottish internationalism in foreign policy. With a twinkle in her eye, she fielded question after question about Brexit. “Ah…Brexit,” she joked. “I knew we’d get there eventually”. Such was Thornberry’s enthusiasm that she made the revealing aside that: “If I was not in the Leadership, then I’d probably be campaigning to remain in the European Union.”