A strong start for Dugdale but Sturgeon remains untouchable

The keenest-sought accolade in Scottish politics today is to be deemed to have had “a good referendum”.

Nicola Sturgeon, Ruth Davidson, and Jim Murphy all had good referendums. Johann Lamont, Alistair Carmichael, and Anas Sarwar generally did not.

Kezia Dugdale, though, secured her good referendum status later than most, winning praise for her impressive turn in STV’s town hall debate two weeks out from polling day. The format paired the Labour MSP against pro-independence actress Elaine C Smith on the subject of social justice. Commentators held few hopes for Ms Dugdale as a politician going up against an entertainer who could play the anti-politics card to court the audience.

While the celebrity debater played that very card, Ms Dugdale surprised many with a passionate defence of the Union as a platform for creating a more just and equal society. Her answers were clearly heartfelt and showed the viewers at home, most of them likely encountering her for the first time, that she was more than a machine politician who read the lines and got off the stage.

In assessing her performance that night, I noted her “sustained assault on the SNP’s ideological left-right acrobatics on policies like college places and the living wage”, before adding: “Expect to see more of her in the final two weeks of the campaign and in the Scottish Labour Party in the years to come.”

But even I didn’t expect to see her rise to her party’s deputy leadership aged just 33. That elevation has been facilitated by the crisis facing Scottish Labour, with the party on course to be all but wiped out north of the border in next May’s general election.

Ms Dugdale, who only became an MSP in 2011, is leading the Labour charge at First Minister’s Questions until new party head Jim Murphy can find a Scottish Parliament seat. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, the best debater in Scottish politics, could have been forgiven for expecting an easy ride given her opposite number’s relative lack of experience.

Any such assumption would have been quickly dispelled by the strong performance turned in by Ms Dugdale, who used the opportunity to put the SNP leader on the spot over the global collapse in oil prices. This is a touchy subject for the Nationalists, who promised prices of $113 a barrel during the referendum campaign but have looked on with the rest of the world as Brent Crude plummeted to $60 earlier this week.

Ms Sturgeon pledged to listen to any policy proposals Labour might have in this area. That’s a polite way of saying: “And what exactly would you do differently? I’m all ears.”

It’s all part of the First Minister’s shiny, happy people strategy of appealing for a more consensual approach to politics. Whenever a politician calls for consensus, what they really mean is “Please stop asking me difficult questions”. “Consensus” has become a one-way ratchet for politicians to go on the offensive while demanding their opponents take the high road; it’s like punching someone in the street and appealing for a consensus on not calling the police.

The purpose of government is to implement policy and the job of the opposition is to scrutinise and challenge. Prizing consensus above the honest, if sometimes harsh, divisions of parliamentary debate does not make our politics more mature or constructive. It insulates MSPs from the broad range of opinions held by the public on important issues. “Consensus” is a protection racket for the political class and the rise of Ukip in England should have taught us by now where it leads.

No one can touch Ms Sturgeon politically. She’s an instinctive leader, tough but sincere, determined but open-minded, and more in tune with the sentiments and aspirations of ordinary people than someone who has spent most of her life in politics really ought to be. Above all else, she’s blessed with a natural likeability. You want her to do well, or you want yourself to want her to do well.

But her professed conversion to consensus politics risks introducing an unwelcome phoniness to a politician admired for being genuine. She would do well to drop the kumbaya talk quietly and get some new lines. Eventually, her honeymoon period will fade, rows will arise here and scandals there, and her appeals for cross-party unity will begin to look like weakness. She should take the opportunity of a new adversary across the debating chamber to find her first ministerial voice.

For Ms Dugdale’s part, she should ramp up the pressure on the First Minister, using FMQs to put Ms Sturgeon on the defensive in areas trumpeted by the SNP: energy, the constitution, the economy, and social justice. She should carry herself as a future leader and not as a stop-gap solution to Mr Murphy’s parliamentary homelessness. I would add that she talks too quickly — public speaking is a boxing match, not a sprint — and her voice still carries a nervous tremor. However, these are problems that can be corrected with time and practice by someone of her capabilities.

Elsewhere, Tory leader Ruth Davidson flubbed her lines in a question about John Swinney’s stamp duty replacement levy, referring to the Scottish Government as the “Scottish Conservatives”. What with the SNP’s fondness for council tax freezes and corporate tax cuts, it’s an easy mistake to make. The gaffe doesn’t detract from what has been a successful year for the Glasgow MSP, with strong performances in the debating chamber and on the referendum campaign trail.

Of course, that and a fiver will get you a venti cinnamon latte (hold the foam) in Starbucks. What matters is whether she can carry this momentum forward into the general election. To do so, she has to overcome not only the standard Scottish hostility towards all things Tory but also a buoyant SNP and a new Scottish Labour leader that Middle Scotland can feel comfortable voting for.

Still, her party is more optimistic, confident even, than it has been in years and if it can focus its energies and resources on one or two target seats — without actually revealing them, as it incautiously did in 2010 — it could add to its current total of one MP in Scotland.

Of course Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie and Green joint-co-vice-primus-inter-pares convenor Patrick Harvie turned in solid performances but they will have to step up to compete with the three strong women who will dominate the remainder of this parliament, even if one will be as a deputy leader. This new gender balance is something to be proud of and will do more to change Scottish politics than ersatz chumminess.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Shelter Scotland by Creative Commons 2.0.

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