A lot of signals have been sent in the first week of Kezia Dugdale’s leadership of Scottish Labour.
Some of them have naturally had to be about process, as there are internal party matters to be dealt with. We won’t be hearing any more about the self-defeating idea of splitting Scottish Labour from the UK party. We will be seeing a new broom sweep through the regional lists and there’s an indication that constituency selections might be reviewed as well.
And with regard to the front bench, we won’t be letting ourselves be defined by the SNP, but rather setting out our own priorities and pursuing our own path, with a clear intent to use the talents of the whole of the party.
This is all to the good, but the danger is that process issues crowd out the real task which faces us, which is of asserting and articulating our values through policy and rhetoric. Because the challenge we face is not a quick fix to win government next year; it is a slow process to persuade people to listen to us again, and to trust us again, so that we can put Labour values into action in the future. And that means rebuilding the Labour family, in order to rebuild the Labour Party.
That’s why I was delighted at Kezia’s speech on Thursday, in which she began to set out her approach to that challenge. And she did so in uncompromising language. On the one hand, in her passage on environmental justice, she said:
“The air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat are shared by all of us. They require collective action to protect both people and the environment. Both are at risk from unregulated capitalism which wastes both human and natural resource.”
Meanwhile she championed entrepreneurship:
“I know that nothing can be achieved without the dynamic growing economy, jobs and opportunities created by entrepreneurs. That the compassionate force of community and government must accommodate with the creativity and genius the market is responsible for.”
The fundamental theme was laid out in her challenge to those who want to continue to argue over where powers sit, rather than what we do with them:
“There is a powerful new establishment in Scotland. It dominates government, public life, both parliaments. Its premise is that shared identity means shared interest.
But the interests of the rich and the poor, those sat in the boardroom and those stood on shop floor, are not always aligned. I would keep universal services and the gains of devolution. But let’s be clear we cannot have a more equal society without redistribution.
We cannot fund public services unless the wealthy, as well as the rest of us, pay a fair share. Public services that work well for the advantaged aren’t necessarily right for the disadvantaged.
These are arguments that have long been central to political debate in Westminster. Our new tax and welfare powers mean that debate, those political choices, are coming north.”
As significant fiscal powers come to the Scottish Parliament, the old politics of blaming Westminster should shift. Part of Labour’s challenge is to be effective enough as an opposition to force the Scottish Government to acknowledge and address that shift. Because without effective opposition, the Westminster blame game can continue even as it becomes less and less rooted in reality.
But in order to become an effective opposition, Labour must find its voice and its place, and find the self-belief to not only offer rightful criticism of government failures – across policing, educational attainment, access to healthcare and more – but also give hope that a better approach is possible, and Labour can be the champion of a better Scotland.
It is, as every commentator and pundit agrees, a massive challenge. But I see in Kezia’s words a sign that she both recognises its scale and has the nous and energy to meet it. One week in and we can see this is no strategy of shock and awe; no urgent electoral calculation; no triangulation of message.
This is a young leader bringing her lived experience to bear as she rebuilds our Labour family. Let’s all join in that effort.