Even in Scotland, ‘Name the post-devolution leaders of the Scottish Labour party’ is a pretty decent pub quiz question. There have been so many and so few of them left much of a legacy. The people’s standard has been borne by Donald Dewar, Henry McLeish, Jack McConnell, Wendy Alexander, Iain Gray, Johann Lamont, Jim Murphy and Kezia Dugdale. Eight leaders in eighteen years. (In the same period, the SNP and the Tories have each only had three leaders.)
And now there will be a ninth. Kezia Dugdale’s resignation as leader of the Scottish Labour party surprised even some of her closest allies and senior aides. Many of them are, not to put too fine a point on it, furious, seeing her resignation as something close to an abdication of responsibility.
Leading the Scottish Labour party is not an easy job at the best of times and those best of times were long ago. The party has lost seats and share of the vote in every single election to the Scottish parliament since the first in 1999. The rot began when Kezia Dugdale was still in university.
Still, Labour have been beaten by the Scottish Conservatives in three consecutive elections (to Holyrood, local councils and, in June, Westminster). Viewed from the vantage point, Dugdale’s resignation seems entirely explicable in political terms. But that is not the whole story.
The suggestion she has been forced out by the Corbynite left is overblown. There is a vacancy at the head of the Labour party in Scotland because Kezia Dugdale has decided there should be a vacancy, not because she was on the brink of being defenestrated. Even if a rebellion was on the cards, she could have stayed to fight it.
That she chose not to speaks more to her character than anything else. Not, I should say, in a discreditable manner. On the contrary, the one thing everyone agrees on about Kezia Dugdale is that she’s a transparently nice, and decent, person. Too pleasant, by this reckoning, for frontline politics and far too decent for Labour politics in particular. Sometimes she affected the air of an exasperated primary school teacher; at other times she delivered a startlingly persuasive impersonation of a disappointed labrador.
In that sense, tiring of the sniping and backbiting seems altogether reasonable. The final straw, I suspect, was chuntering within Labour that Dugdale’s relationship with Jenny Gilruth, an SNP MSP, somehow compromised her ability to lead the party. Sod that, she has concluded, there’s more to life than this.
Maybe so, but she didn’t have to go like this. Despite her own differences with Jeremy Corbyn – and a fateful, perhaps unnecessary, decision to endorse Owen Smith’s leadership challenge – the two have come to an uneasy peace. Labour’s revival in Scotland in June – a revival measured in seats won more than it was in votes cast – owed much to Corbyn but also something to Dugdale. They were, in their best or luckiest moments, complementary forces. Corbyn rallied the left; Dugdale stressed Labour’s newly-reiterated anti-independence credentials.
Some of us, I concede, have been proved mistaken by Corbyn. We thought that he would lead Labour to disaster in England and, by doing so, keep the Tories in power for nearly twenty years. (He still might, of course.) In those circumstances, a vote for independence might seem more attractive to left-wing Scots. That is to say, Unionism needs a Labour party that is strong in England more than it needs one that wins in Scotland.
Corbyn’s surprising success in England – albeit assisted by David Cameron and Theresa May – changes the game. It makes a mockery of the SNP’s claims that Labour can never win in England and so, therefore, Scotland’s left-of-centre future must lie with the SNP. But if Labour can win in England, a vote for Labour in Scotland is less likely to be a wasted vote.
Still, Dugdale’s resignation leaves Labour in turmoil all over again. If succession-planning is part of leadership then on this measure too, even Dugdale’s allies think she’s guilty of something close to negligence. The left will challenge for the leadership – though possibly not in the form of Neil Findlay, Corbyn’s most-sympatico Scottish colleague – and Anas Sarwar, whose leanness has always advertised his hungry ambition, will surely also run.
Whoever wins, it is likely that Labour will tilt towards the populist left. This is less a break with the past than a continuation, however. Dugdale has lately been enjoying some successes on policy, putting the SNP under some pressure on matters such as income tax (she supports a 50p rate for highest earners), on educational inequality (including cuts to college places), and on trains (pushing for a public sector successor to privatised, and Dutch-run, ScotRail). Labour’s future in Scotland, at least in the short-term, lies on the left. The question is whether any of the available messengers will be more effective than Dugdale.
And that, of course, creates new space and opportunity in the centre. Which is why Ruth Davidson is one of the people least displeased by Dugdale’s resignation. Not because Dugdale was necessarily a threat to the Tory revival in Scotland but because a populist left-wing Labour party almost certainly isn’t. Such a development would more easily allow the Tories to present themselves as a moderately centre-right alternative to the SNP. Which, since this is what the Tories want to be seen as anyway, might be thought grist to Davidson’s mill.
Labour’s problems, however, did not begin with Kezia Dugdale and – for all her mistakes and enforced on-the-job learning – they won’t end with her departure either. There is always a temptation, whenever a politician resigns, to assume that the stated reasons for their departure are not the real reason for going. The true story must be different.
Sometimes that may be a valid and sensible scepticism, but in the case of Kezia Dugdale the truth is a little simpler: her departure makes more sense in personal terms than in purely political ones. She’d just had enough. Which may also be why a surprising number of people, from across the political spectrum, think there’s something a little sad about her decision to step down.
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