Human, compassionate, and will be missed
Labour Hame editor Duncan Hothersall reflects on the shock resignation of Kezia Dugdale as Scottish Labour leader.
Kezia Dugdale resigned as Scottish Labour leader last night, just two short years since being elected to the post. Scottish Labour members, including our MSPs and MPs, were largely taken by surprise at the news, which came in a hurriedly arranged interview with the BBC’s Brian Taylor.
In that interview Kez said she felt she was leaving the party in a better state than she found it. I think only her most die-hard opponents could possibly disagree.
When she put herself forward for election as leader, Scottish Labour was reeling from the catastrophic 2015 election result and was being written off as a spent force by its opponents. The SNP stood seemingly unassailable, and Labour was being cast as yesterday’s party. Today it is the SNP looking tired and weak, on education, on health and on social justice, and it is Kezia Dugdale’s resurgent Labour Party taking that fight to them in parliament and on the streets.
Of course leadership is as much about internal dialogue and persuasion as it is about representing the party to the public. In working tirelessly to push through internal reforms to rebuild the Labour family in Scotland, Kez went further than many would have done in her position. She won necessary autonomy for the party and representation on the UK ruling body. But she also democratised annual conference, enabling it to pass policy with which she personally disagreed; and then, true to her word, she argued for and defended that policy on behalf of the Scottish membership. Others could learn a lesson from that approach.
This dignified and highly principled democratic instinct was the hallmark of her internal leadership; but so was a steely determination. The achievement of 50:50 gender balance on candidate selections in 2016 and 2017 might look to an outsider like a minor footnote, but it involved standing up to deeply ingrained entitlement and the deployment of a charm offensive on an industrial scale. And it won her enemies as well as friends.
Perhaps her boldest move was the attempt to outflank the SNP on the left in the 2016 election. Never expected – or, one might argue, intended – to succeed in itself, this was rather a statement of position, a re-assertion of Labour’s historic mission. While it could not deliver sufficient electoral return to make a difference, it did serve to effectively redefine Scottish Labour from a perceived backer of the status quo back to being a radical movement for social justice, and laid the groundwork for the recovery which would later follow.
Ironically for the constant, sniping voices on the hard left of the party which strove to undermine her from day one, Scottish Labour under Kez was more committed to economic justice than the UK party under Corbyn, with more progressive policy on tax and social security. In post-referendum Scotland she understood that Labour needed to drag the argument away from constitutional wrangling and back to social justice, again and again and again. It is sad indeed that she has now stood down just as that strategy was beginning to bear fruit. One must hope that the excellent team she built up to deliver this strategy will be allowed to complete the job.
And running through all of these achievements, and also through those moments when things didn’t go quite as well as might be hoped, we always, always saw from Kez a compassion and an authenticity which cut through the cynical lens of politics and showed us a human being of simple, perhaps at times naive, principle. She wasn’t a player, or a schemer. She did things because she thought they were right. And in so doing she reminded us what the Scottish Labour Party is about.
I know that Scottish Labour will miss having Kezia Dugdale as its leader. We must now hope that her successor can find similar qualities to bring to the role, and can build on her substantial achievements. Thank you, Kez, for all that you’ve done.