Commentary by Christopher Silver
On balance, Kezia Dugdale was the most capable leader of Scottish Labour since Donald Dewar. That might seem like a molehill of an achievement given the chronic failure of her numerous predecessors, but at the age of 36, it represents no mean feat.
The manner in which Dugdale departed from frontline politics was a rare enough reminder that politicians lead lives beyond the ever-expanding demands of their vocation. A hinterland was once expected in a leader, but for the Kez generation (who are well represented at Holyrood) there was never the opportunity to build one.
The practice of politics as a 24-hour battle of wills, constantly monitored on social media, never switching off to pause and reflect on the bigger picture, has brought new trials that previous generations of parliamentarians never had to face. It has shoved the personal front and centre, where once it could be easily obscured. Dugdale’s ‘outing’ by a journalist should prompt us to ask where these boundaries ought to lie, as politics becomes increasingly personalised.
Perhaps leading a party at such a young age brought with it a realisation that there is far more to life. Our expectation that leaders must be human and relatable also comes with a darker side. It can hollow out and obscure many of the things – love, family, friendship, community – that ought to be the bedrock of how people approach political decisions.
Despite predictable sniping about betrayal from insiders, Dugdale held down the most difficult job in Scottish politics for longer than many expected, despite the unenviable task of overseeing Labour’s inevitable slide into third place at Holyrood and its worst result in Scotland since 1910.
Such results are not made by one leader, they are the product of a deep malaise that was at work in Scottish Labour long before Jim Murphy led it to near oblivion at Westminster in 2015. The structures, staffers, and toxic internal cultures below decks, do not disappear with a new face at the helm.
The party remains in an undesirable place, a fact that was underlined by the fact that UK pundits were simply incapable of interpreting the resignation news. Newsnight’s Nick Watt, smug high-school prefect of the Westminster bubble, couldn’t even be bothered to find out how many MPs Labour had won in Scotland a few months ago.
At a particularly febrile moment, when all eyes are on the seat of power, the politics of Scottish Labour at Holyrood is largely irrelevant to the wider shape of where UK politics goes. In the grand scheme of things Holyrood remains a political inconvenience for Labour: an outpost of its own creation that was long ago ceded to the barbarous nationalists.
Still, the UK party must maintain the appearance of interest, even if the garrison and its unfortunate governor must constantly look over their shoulder, back to the centre, and the distant memory of unquestioned dominance in the north.
In addition to some kind of response to the ideological divisions playing out within the PLP at Westminster, Scottish Labour must also contend with its inability to function independently of the UK party. Stuck in the halfway house of devolution, its attachment to a “For the many, not the Nats” platform will probably define its electoral ceiling for some time.
The Scottish Labour leadership contest is therefore likely to defy punditry, with Blairite Anas Sarwar and the hitherto obscure Richard Leonard set to battle it out. It is unlikely that this internal debate will succeed in properly aligning the Scottish party with Corbyn’s insurgency in the south – because Scottish Labour’s own ideological tensions have roots that reach back to when Corbyn was a mere sparkle in Ken Livingstone’s eye.
It’s a frequently overlooked fact that Labour’s dominance in Scotland in the 1980s and 90s was not built on a great surge of working class discontent: the old industrial seats were for the most part constant in their loyalty to Labour.
What gave Labour that remarkable ability to win across central Scotland was the anti-Thatcherism of middle-class voters in Scotland, this in turn helped shift the Scottish party to the right. This is why at the last election the party focused on three affluent Scottish constituencies: Edinburgh South, East Lothian and East Renfrewshire, positioning itself as the true party of middle Scotland.
Thus the most significant factor stemming from Dugdale’s decision to stand down is the elevation of her Corbynista deputy Alex Rowley to UK Labour’s National Executive Committee. What the tide of Corbynism will do in the longer term to the party’s new bulwark in “Red Morningside” is far less clear.
If Labour’s problem in Scotland is how to make itself more relevant in a Holyrood context – this is mirrored by the SNP’s new struggle to demonstrate why, at Westminster, it can claim to be more relevant than Labour.
John Curtice recently hailed the return of two-party politics at a UK level, whilst noting a fundamental difference: the division was no longer class, or income, but age. The Yes campaign and the SNP were able to ride the wave of this great shift in 2014, but as Labour’s recent gains in Scotland have demonstrated, the SNP is no longer the default choice of the younger, poorer, more desperate, Scottish voter.
At a UK General Election many voters in Scotland will still be drawn to the creation of a Labour government. Wealthier Labour voters may do so simply in order to get a slightly more palatable and gradualist form of Brexit, when faced with the Tories consolidating as the party of the slim Brexit majority. Less well-off Labour voters may simply be prepared to consent to any UK government that stands on an anti-austerity platform.
To look at the intent of such voters as misguided is to forget that Westminster remains the dominant focus of political life in Scotland – just look at the consistently higher turnout in UK general elections compared to those for the Scottish Parliament.
UK politics has become a field of desperation rather than hope. The ever growing struggles for millions of ordinary people, both north and south of the border, creates a desire not for something new, but for the quickest possible route out.
Two years ago, it may have seemed that independence was the quickest escape route, but events have pushed that possibility to beyond 2021.
Unfortunately, the parallel struggles of the SNP at Westminster and Scottish Labour at Holyrood to remain relevant distract from the many policy areas that they share in common and the potential strength of a united front against the rightward lurch of Toryism. It seems doubtful that a new leader for Labour at Holyrood will be able to transcend this, but it is not impossible.
There were points when, unlike so many other Scottish Labour politicians, Kezia Dugdale saw the value in making common cause with the SNP. Tellingly, her two standout contributions in the chamber were at such moments: consisting of vehemently anti-Tory speeches during debates on Brexit and the Rape Clause.
Did Dugdale shine like Joan of Arc-like in the party’s darkest hour? No. Did she succeed in winning the obvious autonomy Labour requires in Scotland? Up to a point. Is Scottish Labour in better place than it was under predecessor? Probably.
But perhaps, as we so often forget, there is a real, substantive, achievement in not allowing the bitterness of her positon and the politics she inherited to define her.
Too often the influence of spin-doctors and tribal party operators leaves us with a mere facsimile of a human for leader.
Dugdale has departed the stage of Scottish public life with a sense of who she is intact. The bitterness of the Scottish Labour machine is likely to grind on through its prolonged post-devolution crisis-of-relevance for years to come. But it is a comfort, however small, to see a leader choose life instead.