Kezia Dugdale: “The best-case scenario for Brexit in Scotland is that it doesn’t happen”

The former leader of Scottish Labour on her decision to leave Holyrood and why she isn’t optimistic about the party’s chances under Jeremy Corbyn.

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The walk from Edinburgh Waverley station to the Scottish Parliament features nearly as many flags of the European Union as it does saltires. Draped from windows, flying proudly from souvenir shops and even pinned to one Sikh gentleman’s turban, Edinburgh wears its metropolitanism, its global reputation, its multiple languages and cultures, as a badge of honour.

Kezia Dugdale, the former leader of Scottish Labour and the MSP for Lothian (a post she will leave in July), says she supported a second vote on EU membership “before it was cool”. She is convinced of the first vote’s “illegitimacy”. The campaign to leave, she says, ran on claims and promises that were “false”, and “the best-case scenario for Brexit in Scotland is that it doesn’t happen.”

To her frustration, however, the Labour Party has “suffered from not having a clear position” on the EU, instead “flip-flopping” on the single market and customs union, and “glossing over” the concerns of those who voted to remain. Does she see Labour as a party in favour of Brexit? “If it’s not prepared to stop Brexit then it’s enabling Brexit... therefore, it is a Brexit party.”

After 12 years in the Scottish Parliament – four as a researcher and adviser, eight as an elected representative – Dugdale has decided to leave Holyrood. As of next month she will be the first director of the newly established John Smith Centre for Public Service, a think tank based at the University of Glasgow that will research and challenge the rise of populist and nativist politics.

Dugdale “didn’t plan to walk away”, she says, but she began to suffer from “disillusionment with party politics”. Her decision to leave was precipitated by her party’s withdrawal of financial support during a legal case in which she was sued for £25,000 by a pro-Scottish independence blogger whom she accused of writing a homophobic post on Twitter. Dugdale’s comments, written in a column for the Daily Record, were found by a judge to have been fair comment. Despite having won the case, she says that she felt “abandoned” by her party during “some of the lowest points in my life”.

But while Dugdale has, she says, “lost heart in this concept of solidarity”, she will not cease to be a Labour member when she leaves Holyrood. Defection to a more explicitly pro-European party has “not once crossed my mind... It’s my party, even if it is in a difficult time at the moment.”

In the recent European elections, Scottish Labour failed to win a single seat. Finishing in fifth place, the party lost both of the MEPs it had returned in 2014. Asked how politics and the Labour Party compare to when she first entered Parliament, Dugdale responds that they are “categorically worse on both counts”.

Dugdale believes that an “obsession” with the Scottish constitution – particularly the debate around devolution and independence – has “distracted” from the more pressing issues that led her into public service to begin with. “I came here wanting to spend my time in politics tackling poverty and inequality, talking about homelessness and what we can do to eradicate that. But, in fact, I’ve spent my time in elected office talking about the constitution.”

Despite her support for a second vote, Dugdale says the “binary choices” offered by referendums  have made politics “more tribal. These are yes or no questions and they force people to pick a side. You join a side and you become more convinced of your own righteousness and less willing to understand someone who might have the opposite opinion to you. You’re less likely to want to work together towards that grey area where consensus, compromise and ultimately progress are found.”

So why leave now? If politics is in such dire straits, why not stay and fight? After an “exhausting” experience on Holyrood’s frontline – she replaced Jim Murphy as the leader of Scottish Labour in August 2015, shortly after the party had lost all but one of its Westminster seats in Scotland to the SNP – Dugdale says she could be accepted in wanting to “take a step back... to understand the political system better. I wanted to study the system, check its pulse, check its health and be part of a think tank that is about sharing evidence and offering prescriptions on how we can make things better.”

Dugdale says that personality, rather than policy, has been prioritised in modern politics. Her first Labour leader was pilloried for the way in which he ate a bacon sandwich, while the second has “been cheered on the stage at Glastonbury”. Still, Dugdale says she “always got on with Jeremy Corbyn on a personal level”. But while she “can respect his anti-austerity principles”, she is “not confident” that the current Labour leader’s popularity in London will translate to votes north of the border.

She warns that Scottish Labour voters in favour of remaining part of the United Kingdom may not “trust” Corbyn’s resolve on the issue. “Labour is the best lever by which to redistribute wealth and power, yet when Jeremy’s come here on some occasions, he’s come across as very sympathetic to the idea of independence. He’s certainly not been ruling it out as staunchly as most [Scottish] Labour voters would want him to. [Voters have] become more unionist,” she says, “and Labour has found itself on the wrong side of lots of its target voters.”

This suspicion could be made worse, she warns, by a general election. “Even if you do believe [Corbyn], you might think that he’d easily trade that away in order to get into power. If the SNP continues to win MPs in Scotland and they say to Jeremy Corbyn that he’s 20 seats short of having a majority in the House of Commons, that they’ll back every budget for the next five years if he gives them IndyRef2, what does Jeremy Corbyn do at that point? Is he prepared to forego a Labour government in order to stop a second independence referendum? That seems very unlikely.”

Beyond Brexit and independence, Dugdale says the main concern for voters in Scotland will be their own “economic security... People in Scotland want the best they can possibly manage for their family. But they don’t like injustice. They want the people around them to have the opportunities that they didn’t have. They’re prepared to pay taxes for high-quality public services, but they don’t want people to take the mickey, and they don’t want to be held back. That’s classic Labour territory, which is why the focus for me should be on progressive taxation. The richest aren’t paying their fair share, so let’s make them pay their fair share, and from the receipts we get from that, let’s invest in the things that people care about. Like education, because that helps us to grow our economy and it allows us to compete.”

In Edinburgh’s Old Town, the average price of a home is over £329,000 and a haircut costs £22. For £30,000 to be “no longer viewed as a decent salary here”, Dugdale says, is a sign of successive governments’ failures to control the  “market forces”  that have led to serious social inequalities.

For Dugdale, the private rental sector in many ways “reflects the state of the world we’re in”. A study by the Chartered Institute for Housing found that central Edinburgh has over 10,000 short-term lets, while two of every 13 houses in the city are listed on Airbnb. This has, Dugdale says, contributed to a shortfall of housing for the people “who really need it”.

Partly this is to do with Edinburgh’s flourishing tourism industry. “Landlords can make almost as much money in August [during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe] leasing out their properties on Airbnb as they can from leasing out the property for eight to 12 months across the year, to a student or young person, for example. People in the city who buy properties and put them on Airbnb… they get a small business owner’s scheme [of tax relief]; they’re not even paying the proper tax. We could fix that so easily, and in Edinburgh that would create an additional £6m in revenue which you could then pay into temporary accommodation provision, or use to build more houses. The private rental sector in Edinburgh is getting bigger and for many it’s out of reach, so people are being forced to move out of the city. I’ve got a huge number of constituents who are living in temporary social housing and shelters, even if they have full-time salaried jobs in Edinburgh. It’s not about condemning an entire industry – I use Airbnb – but it is about being fairer about who is taxed and how they are taxed.”

For Labour to succeed in Scotland, and elsewhere, Dugdale says the party needs to “get back to basics” and put its energy into “ideas” as opposed to individual people. She is not optimistic – “and it breaks my heart to say that” – about Labour’s immediate chances of forming a majority government. And while she is keen to advance beyond the Brexit conversation, she admits that so long as it remains unresolved, it is the prism through which all policies must be viewed. “That’s why I moved quickly after the EU referendum to establish the Scottish Labour campaign for [staying in] the single market,” she explains. “We can only hope to retain the benefits of the single market by also accepting the free movement of people. It is critical to keeping the best academics in Scotland’s world-leading academic institutions. We need inward migration to support public services and our tourism sector. Scotland has huge growth potential, particularly in fintech and the life sciences, but both are reliant on the free movement of big brains and big ideas.”

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman