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  • Published in Analysis
Kezia Dugdale, Ex-leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Photo: Vimeo

Kezia Dugdale, Ex-leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Photo: Vimeo

The resignation as leader of Scottish Labour is a recognition of Corbyn's strength

Kezia Dugdale has resigned as leader of Scottish Labour. A persistent critic of Jeremy Corbyn over the past two years, Dugdale's departure can only be seen as a recognition of political reality and a victory for the left.

Dugdale succeeded Jim Murphy in August 2015, a month before Corbyn's leadership victory, after Scottish Labour's dramatic collapse in the 2015 general election. That outcome was the result of a buoyant SNP, attracting hordes of Labour voters, alienated by a party wedded to the neoliberal establishment.

The media immediately lauded Dugdale as the person to turn things around, arguing that it was personality and not politics that alienated Scottish voters, seemingly blind to the analysis of the left. In reality, as a figure so clearly on the party's right, the prospect of Dugdale leading a revival was near impossible. 

This was cemented just months later when Scottish Labour members unanimously voted to scrap Trident, despite Dugdale making clear she supported its renewal. Furthermore, less than a year later Dugdale called on Corbyn to resign after a no-confidence-motion was passed by Labour MPs, making her recent calls for party unity beyond laughable. She then backed Corbyn's leadership challenger Owen Smith, and denied that this meant she had to stand aside when Corbyn was subsequently re-elected with a greater majority. 

Independence

One of the lessons regularly discussed after Jim Murphy's departure was that Labour's willingness to share stages with the Tories during the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum acted to undermine its core support in Scotland, suggesting it had become synonymous with the Conservatives and the neoliberal establishment, allowing the SNP promptly to soak up this disaffection. 

Yet, during her two-year stint as Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale has been keen to define her party by its opposition to Scottish independence. In long-held battles between the SNP and the Tories over Scottish independence, Dugdale repeatedly cemented Scottish Labour's position as opposed to independence, effectively siding with the Tories. In fact, Dugdale rarely acted to nuance the party's position at all, responding to any of Corbyn's attempt to do so. 

The Labour party has traditionally defended the union and thus Dugdale's position was no surprise. However, the emphasis she placed on it was one of her cardinal errors. Instead of seizing the opportunity to define Scottish Labour in its opposition to austerity and inequality, as Corbyn set out to do nationally, Dugdale placed her emphasis on opposing independence

In doing so, Dugdale robbed Scottish Labour any semblance of a radical agenda, further driving a wedge between herself, the Corbyn leadership and the Scottish electorate. 

When asked his thoughts on potential Scottish independence, Jeremy Corbyn said he didn't see it as a problem. I don't doubt that Corbyn is a supporter of the union, he was merely aware that placing such stress on it can only distract from presenting the party as one opposed to the establishment, a lesson clear to anyone who followed the last independence referendum and its aftermath. Dugdale quickly muscled in to restate Scottish Labour's opposition to independence and in doing so, illustrated all that was wrong with Scottish Labour's approach. Instead of fighting the Tories on austerity, Dugdale was fighting alongside them on Scottish independence. A clear way of undermining any claim to being a radical opposition.

Judged by elections

In the first test of Dugdale's leadership during the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, Labour lost a third of its seats, attaining its lowest percentage of the vote in Scotland for 98 years and falling into third place for the first time since 1910. Predictably, the blame for this result was attributed to Corbyn, with the media and many inside Scottish Labour promoting the idea that the result was a rejection of him and not Dugdale. A glaring mistruth for many aware of the political situation on the ground. It was clear that this result was the rejection of an establishment-heavy Scottish Labour and not Corbyn's leadership of the wider-party. 

This trend was repeated a year later after May's local elections. In its aftermath, many journalists predicted that Labour would be wiped out of Scotland in the following General Election. We now know they were wrong. 

Labour went on double an early-election poll rating of 13% and clawed back 6 seats from the SNP. Despite still coming third overall in Scotland, the result compounded what many in the media, and Scottish Labour insiders, had predicted.

Had Dugdale mysteriously been able to ignite Scottish Labour's support base in a matter of weeks? No. So what had changed? After reportedly being told to avoid Scotland because of his supposed unpopularity, finally Labour's leader was being seen and his message being heard.

Nationally, Labour's campaign was a clear success. This too was felt in Scotland. Young voters, previously disillusioned with a Labour party wedded to the banking system, liked what they saw and began to vote in numbers. 

Alas, Labour did not wipe out the Tories and SNP and come back to dominate Scotland as they once did, but they staged an incredible recovery. Corbyn clearly wasn't the bogey man that Dugdale and co threatened he was. In fact, in the months after the election, the Corbyn team has placed strong emphasis on touring Scotland. How times change. It begs the question how much better Labour's performance in Scotland may have been had Scottish Labour not effectively vetoed Corbyn's presence. 

Reportedly, Dugdale's resignation gives Corbyn a slender majority on the party's NEC. In what has seemingly become a war of attrition for Labour's internal machine, this is a cautious victory. More importantly, Dugdale's successor must be someone who supports Corbyn and understands the reality of his burgeoning support in Scotland to ensure it can continue.

Labour's resurgence in Scotland in May was in spite of Kezia Dugdale not because of her. She has acted to undermine Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and narrative throughout her tenure as Scottish Labour leader. It was inevitable given the election result and the reality of Corbyn's surging support in Scotland that her days were numbered. This can only be viewed as a positive as Labour looks to build on its election momentum. It is now vital Scottish Labour is led by someone capable of strengthening Corbyn's message, not curtailing it.
 

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