KEZIA Dugdale is about to lead Labour into the party’s most difficult election in Scotland for decades.
Trailing well behind the SNP in the polls and amid speculation the Tories could snatch second place, she is under no illusions about the challenge ahead. But Ms Dugdale is on a mission.
She has announced bold new policies to put 1p on income tax and ban fracking, stances distinct from Labour south of the Border.
And she promises the May 5 Holyrood elections will prove Scottish Labour is changing.
Speaking ahead of today’s Scottish Labour conference in Glasgow, she insisted she was intent on taking on Nicola Sturgeon.
“I want her job, I really do – I’m not just going through the motions of this,” she said.
“I desperately want there to be a Labour government in this country because I believe my party has the values and the policies and the solutions to the great challenges we face.
“I’m going into it to win every single vote I can. I appreciate it’s difficult but I still maintain that objective.”
The SNP is expected to put “Nicola Sturgeon for First Minister” on the ballot paper and the Tories will have “Ruth Davidson for a strong opposition”.
But Ms Dugdale says Labour’s slogan on the ballot paper will be “Choose kids not cuts”.
The other two leaders are likely to feature on the front of all their parties’ election publicity.
Ms Dugdale said: “I will be on our leaflets, but what I’m putting on the front is our policy. That’s no reflection on me or how popular I am, I just think politics is about ideals and ideas that’s what I want to make it about, not personalities.”
Success at the election is also not just about how many MSPs Labour ends up with, she says. There is something more fundamental at stake.
“I’m trying to renew the Scottish Labour Party. That’s about more than winning seats, it’s about making sure people have a much clearer sense of what our values are, what we stand for; it’s about bringing forward new blood.
“I’m also trying to renew the Labour family, our relationship with the UK party. We’re now an autonomous Scottish Labour Party, I’m the leader, I set the rules. That’s why I’ll be leading the conference this weekend and Jeremy [Corbyn] won’t. That’s a new relationship of partnership.
“I think the expectation on me is to prove the Labour Party is changing, has a much clearer sense of itself, that it stands up for Scotland, that there is new blood and new life – and I’m absolutely 100 per cent sure I’ll be able to prove that.”
She accuses the SNP of arrogance as the election approaches. “John Swinney has said his baseline target is to win every constituency. I think even some of the SNP’s most loyal supporters will grimace a bit at that.
“I hear the SNP say all the time they are ‘stronger for Scotland’ – I guess that slogan worked for them at the general election when we were sending politicians to Westminster, Here we’re talking about sending politicians to a building down the road, so ‘stronger’ for what exactly?
“I don’t know other than independence what the SNP stands for. They say they’re against austerity, against Tory cuts, but they won’t use the powers of the parliament to make different choices.”
And Ms Dugdale is dismissive of the threat from the Tories. “I don’t buy that there is this great Tory resurgence at all,” she said.
Ruth Davidson is pitching the Tories as the party to resist SNP moves for another independence referendum.
“Fear of independence is the only hope the Tories have got,” said Ms Dugdale. “But I think there is a deep and very dark hypocrisy at the heart of what Ruth Davidson is saying. She is saying ‘Trust me, I’m the only one who can look after the Union’. But she represents a party that introduced EVEL (English votes for English laws) before the result of the referendum was properly known, a party whose government is attacking working people’s rights and has done more to divide this country than many of the other parties put together.
“And at the slightest hint of a second referendum or more debate about the constitution, Ruth Davidson seeks to pour petrol on that, to scaremonger and hype up the prospect of another referendum because it suits her own political agenda.
“She has said she aspires to be the main opposition, so she would have to make some pretty massive progress to achieve that. I see no appetite for the Tories. The Conservatives have had charismatic, engaging leaders before – it hasn’t done them any good.”
Ms Dugdale has to accept, however, that Labour is not doing well in the polls. She argues her highlighting of “SNP government failures” is not making more headway because “post-referendum, politics is not particularly rational”.
“It’s much more emotional, it’s about how we feel, who we are – and that’s why having an autonomous Scottish Labour Party is really important because I’m the first leader who is honestly able to say they stand up for Scotland, that the decisions they take are made here in Scotland, with the interest of people in Scotland at the fore. Nobody tells me what to do – that’s new.”
Closer to home, Ms Dugdale insists she is “utterly determined” to win the Edinburgh Eastern constituency.
“I’m taking that seat very seriously,” she said. “I’ve just opened a campaign office which I intend to be in at least two or three days a week as I also go round the rest of the country. I’m going to work for every last vote within my own community.”