Ben McKinlay argues that Scottish Labour’s next leader needs not just to deliver left-wing policy, as Kezia Dugdale did, but to be perceived as personally committed to Corbyn.
When BBC News broke the story that Kezia Dugdale had resigned the leadership of Scottish Labour on Tuesday night, I was shocked, and saddened. Perhaps no leader in the history of Scottish Labour has been so brave, so determined, or faced so vast a challenge. When Kezia took on the leadership Scottish Labour had just lost 40 seats in the most devastating general election in our history. To be brave enough to step up and take on what so many saw as a ‘poisoned chalice’ is laudable; to do so at the age of 33 even more so.
Kezia began the rebuilding process that is vital to Scottish Labour’s political survival. Under her leadership, Scottish Conference voted to back the abolition of the Trident nuclear missile system, an important step in renewing Labour’s centre-left credentials in Scotland. Under her leadership, the SNP’s feet were held to the fire, and the Scottish Government’s left-wing mask has crumbled under the pressure of a renewed, vocal and determined opposition. And under her leadership, Scottish Labour began the essential task of rebuilding our parliamentary cohort, with 6 new MPs elected in the June 2017 general election.
This rebuilding process is far from complete. But I believe Kezia was right when she said it was time to “pass the baton on” to a fresh new leader.
For all Kezia has done much to detoxify the Labour brand in Scotland, that has come at a cost. The constant pressure of media scrutiny and public backlash against Scottish Labour’s past failings has naturally, though through no fault of her own, tarnished Kezia’s personal brand. In the eyes of many, she is undeniably linked to the hated New Labour political class, and this perception is only reinforced by her closeness to Murphy’s leadership, and her longstanding opposition to Corbyn’s leadership of the UK party. Kezia’s personal convictions have been a real strength of her leadership, giving her an authenticity that is rarely seen in politics and that Nicola Sturgeon simply cannot match. But it is these very same convictions that has made her position increasingly difficult.
Scotland is, on the whole, a progressive country with a strong socialist tradition. For all people point to the recent Conservative revival in Scotland, it is important to note: over 70% of Scots voted for parties broadly on the left in the 2017 general election. But many among that 70% cannot see Kezia as a true socialist worthy of their vote.
The truth of that perception is doubtful. Kezia has moved Scottish Labour firmly leftward in her time as leader, as was clearly demonstrated through the manifesto on which we fought the 2016 Holyrood election. But like it or not, in politics, perceptions matter. And the perception of many is that Kezia Dugdale is not the sort of socialist people want to see leading Scotland.
Scottish Labour is a party founded on the principles of democratic socialism and that ideology has been central to our success in the past and to what we stand for even to this day. Indeed, it is when those principles of democratic socialism fade, as they did during the later years of Blair as Labour became too accustomed to the excesses of government both in Westminster and Holyrood, that Scottish Labour struggles. Huge droves of voters have abandoned Scottish Labour, many in large part due to the perception, wrongly or otherwise, that we have lost touch with our socialist roots. It is no coincidence that our worst ever general election defeat came under the leadership of Jim Murphy, a man who to many embodied the worst of neoliberal New Labour.
For all the scepticism, Jeremy Corbyn’s new Labour vision has drawn hundreds of thousands, even millions, back into the Labour fold. For all the scepticism, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership transformed an election that many believed could spell the final end for Scottish Labour’s representation in Westminster into an unexpected success. This surely must demonstrate the importance of a perceptibly bold left-wing platform to Labour’s political success.
We are at our best when we are at our boldest. We are at our best when we offer a clear, progressive, and socialist message and can convey the boldness of that message to the public. Kezia has put the building blocks of that message in place but it has become apparent she is not the person to deliver that message to the Scottish public.
We need a leader firmly of the left, who is, importantly, visibly of the left. In the highly-scrutinised world of modern politics, appearances are often as important as policy, and for that reason it is vital that whoever next leads the Scottish Labour Party not only be politically aligned with Jeremy Corbyn’s boldly socialist new Labour, but visibly and vocally aligned with his leadership. Despite the cries of the critics to the contrary, Corbyn’s bold left-wing vision has proven highly effective. One can only wonder what the future might hold were Scottish Labour to fully embrace that vision.