KEZIA Dugdale’s decision to quit as Scottish Labour leader is a big blow for the party. The Lothians MSP has done a sterling job after being thrust into the role at the worst time in the party’s history.
As a young woman with a bright, outgoing personality she brought a breath of fresh air at a grim political time. She took bold decisions about policies, challenged the SNP to be more radical about its use of Holyrood powers, sought to rebuild voters’ trust in Labour and is now leaving after the party performed better than expected in this year’s general election.
She is a real loss – but it is up to the party to make the most of the opportunities it now has and not slip back into bad old ways.
There were claims Ms Dugdale’s resignation was the result of a Corbynite plot. It’s true some left-wingers had been calling for her to go, but it is a pretty unconvincing plot when Mr Corbyn’s leading advocate in Scotland is the first to rule himself out, the Corbyn-supporting deputy leader also declines to stand and the eventual contender from the left takes several days to decide he will bid for the job.
It is also wrong to portray Ms Dugdale as a Blairite. When she took over as leader Ms Dugdale knew Labour – once the all-dominant party of Scottish politics – had a mountain to climb to win back the trust of voters and regain its position.
She took a realistic view of the prospects. And much of her work was not about instant success. The policies she adopted and the stances she took were about making sure Labour was in the right place. with the right policies and ready to go if and when voters tired of the SNP and decided to take a fresh look at the party which they once voted for all the time.
She chose radical policies – raising income tax, bringing back the 50p rate for top earners, a proper alternative to the council tax, opposition to fracking – and made the SNP look unnecessarily cautious.
Internal critics have claimed she put too much emphasis on attacking the SNP over independence instead of talking about things that really mattered to people.
But it was never Ms Dugdale’s instinct to put the constitution at the top of the agenda. Indeed, she fought the 2016 Holyrood election on the need to leave the referendum debate behind and focus on bread-and-butter issues, opposing cuts to public services and proposing new investment.
Her speeches at the time stressed the need to “move on from the tired old arguments of the past and stop the cuts”. But voters at that time still seemed caught up in the constitutional wrangle and Labour was left on the sidelines as the SNP and the Tories battled it out.
However, forced to accept the constitution as a number one topic, Ms Dugdale again opted to be bold and promoted the idea of federalism, often seen as the most popular option overall.
Some have called her departure selfish. But going now, when the party is in a better place than it expected to be and there is no immediate crisis, is far better than quitting under pressure.
There are now signs for the first time in ten years that the SNP is not doing as well as it hoped and that Labour may be recoverring.
Ms Dugdale has brought the party to a promising place. It is now up to the party not to squander her efforts but make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead.