Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale wows the shadow cabinet

The party's frontbenchers were "blown away" by the woman with one of the toughest jobs in politics. 

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When shadow cabinet ministers left this morning's meeting there was only one subject they were talking about: Kezia Dugdale's performance. The 34-year-old Scottish Labour leader gave a presentation described to me by one member as "brilliant", while another declared himself "blown away". After loudly applauding her, frontbenchers left vowing to do more to help their colleagues north of the border (at least one shadow cabinet minister will visit each week).

The Scottish party is forecast to lose all of its 15 constituencies in May's parliamentary election (while retaining around 25 list seats) but Dugdale spoke confidently of her election strategy and her "five-year plan". She intends to make education the focus of Labour's campaign, pledging to establish a "Fair Start Fund" (a version of England's pupil premium), with primary schools receiving £1,000 for every child from a deprived background. The measure would be funded through the introduction of a 50p tax rate on earnings over £150,000.

This is territory on which Labour believes the SNP is vulnerable. The party supported a UK-wide 50p rate in its general election manifesto but has not committed to using new powers to introduce one in Scotland. "Nicola [Sturgeon] will not raise taxes on the wealthy because she needs a big tent if she's to get above 50 per cent [in a second referendum]," former Glasgow North East MP William Bain told me recently. "Scots will not be confronted with the issue of paying higher taxes for higher benefits."

Labour also points to the 152,000 fall in the number of college students and the 40 per cent cut to university student grants (leading to a significant rise in debt for the poorest) as evidence of SNP failure on education. The problem for the party, as I wrote in my column last week, is how the referendum realigned Scottish politics. In normal times, some say, the nationalists would struggle to secure a third term this May – but, they emphasise, these are not normal times. "The poll numbers aren’t shifting, because we’re in post-referendum politics," Ian Murray, the shadow Scotland secretary and Labour’s last surviving MP north of the border, told me. The defining divide is no longer between left and right but between unionist and nationalist. As the only major party that advocates independence, the SNP has a hegemony that will endure. That a leader as talented as Dugdale has so far been unable to improve her party's position shows how Scottish politics has been transformed. 

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.