…and how quickly things can change.
This will not be the first Scottish Leadership Election I have written about. When I looked back on Johann Lamont’s leadership I said that there were two things that the Scottish Labour Party had to face up to and change if we were to improve and succeed with going forward: We must be Scottish Labour and we must be Scottish Labour. Under Kez Dugdale, we have done both.
When Kez stood for leadership way back in…2015, Labour was in dire straights. Less than a year ago we had won the Referendum on Scottish Independence – but soon after had been labeled a branch office by our outgoing leader and suffered a polling slump. Their successor, Jim Murphy, had a very different style of leadership to them – and was bound to be a divisive figure from the start. The “get out in the streets and see if anyone punches me” Campaign of #GE2015 will lead to many great political memoirs in 10-20 years. But it was, ultimately, an unsuccessful attempt at staving off the SNP menace, with only Ian Murray being returned to Westminster as a Labour MP – not even the leader himself saving his seat.
And so, to Kez. Kez who started out as Leader of a Scottish Party alongside a UK Leadership election which was nasty and personal. Kez who started out with all and sundry telling her she had assumed the most unwanted job in Scottish politics. Kez who was in charge of the ‘Branch Office’.Kez who inherited a party that was assumed to be in terminal decline.
And yet – here we are now – almost 2 years later.
We became a more distinctly Scottish Labour Party. Under Kezia, we became braver in asserting our own distinct position in certain issues, and became slightly more comfortable in our Scottishness. Albeit, this is easier when the Scottish PLP is pretty self-determining and the UK Party isn’t relying on Scottish representatives to succeed. But, nonetheless, Scottish Labour embraced its national identity without aping nationalism. Kezia fought – and won – a Scottish Party seat on the UK Labour NEC despite fierce opposition from factions in the party. The 2016 Scottish Parliament Manifesto was miles to the left of the 2017 General Election one – and was not afraid to take it’s own approach in devolved areas, even when it did not mirror UK policy stances.
But also, we became more Scottish Labour. It is glib to say that, after Jim Murphy, that wasn’t hard – but in certain ways, it is right. Jim Murphy was and is a Labour man through and through, but he did not run a Labour Campaign in 2015. Some of the policies were Labour – but they seemed more policies of convenience of conviction. When Kez took over, the policy process went back to basics. The values of Solidarity, Socialism and Equality were firmly embedded in the policy process and, I think, were reflected in the tax and economic platform in the 2016 Manifesto – and in policies it was intended to fund. But policies, it must always be remembered, lost elections. Three Elections.
Despite what I have said, Scottish Labour lost badly 3 times during Kez’s tenure as leader. So badly, in fact, we lost to the Tories! Even in 2015 – things weren’t that bad. But a major factor in that is the constitutional tumult in which Scotland is still caught. With a pious Pro-Indy position from the SNP and a staunch Unionist military mantra coming from the Tories, an unclear and (at times) mixed-message from Labour won us few friends in constitutional terms. Where we gained votes (and we did gain votes) in 2017, it was on the Health Service, Education, public spending and the sense that we need to start thinking about those things again.
And that will be the legacy of Kez’s Leadership – that she has ushered in the beginning of the end of Scotland’s constitutional conversation. When literacy and numeracy standards were falling in Scotland’s schools and the SNP’s response was to withdraw from the international tests that highlighted this – Kez made sure it was front page news. When Nurses are facing a pay freeze and patients face longer waiting times – Kez made sure their voices were heard. And people heard. And people got angry. And they didn’t vote SNP because of it.
But we still lost.
So, if Kez has decided to leave, what do we do now? The next leader has to continue to make the Labour case for Scottish problems and cannot afford to be sucked back into a new constitutional debate on Tory terms. They also cannot run away from the UK party’s direction of travel either, because – and I will accept that I was wrong on this before – it resonates with people more than could have been imagined. But most importantly, they must be able to speak to people.
Kez re-normalised the Labour Party in Scotland. During 2015 people hated us on the doorstep. In 2016, the didn’t really like us. But in 2017, people were listening to us – and in some cases actually agreeing! Along with re-normalising politics she helped re-normalise us.
And for that, Kez, thank you.