Kezia Dugdale offers Labour a fresh start but will the voters?

My commiserations to Kezia Dugdale, who has been elected leader of the Scottish Labour Party.

It’s something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy, so to see it happen to such a nice person is difficult.

The Lothian MSP can’t even take comfort in a near-escape; she trounced rival Ken Macintosh by 72%, a remarkable level of support though it will probably be overtaken by the SNP in a poll some time next week.

Joining Scottish Labour at 23 and being elected leader at 33 is a considerable achievement and reflects her political and personal abilities. But this is Labour in August 2015, a party not merely at an historic low but locked in existential crisis. The new leader hasn’t inherited a poisoned chalice so much as a half-empty bottle of methylated spirits.

Kezia – like Nicola, she inspires familiarity in complete strangers – is young, which is no bad thing; she hasn’t buried any bodies or made any enemies. She has also turned in some skilled and punchy performances at First Minister’s Questions, though unfortunately only six people were watching.

The new leader is a policy geek, which will come in handy, but also warm and likeable, which isn’t nothing in a party hated more than ISIS and toast crumbs on the duvet put together. Kezia’s fluid communication skills will especially come in handy, for that is the biggest challenge facing Scottish Labour: Not what they say, but getting the voters to listen in the first place.

She is not yet looking for their votes; she knows the rapprochement is still a long way off. Instead, she is asking them to “take a fresh look at Scottish Labour”. After more than a decade of arrogance, incompetence, and active stupidity, it doesn’t deserve as much as a glance at this point.

Kezia Dugdale is a different proposition. Humble in defeat, keen to engage, and prepared to admit mistakes, she offers a vivid contrast with the belligerent swagger that has all too often characterised Labour’s dealings with the outside world. Kezia promises a fresh start and a chance to set a new mood. The party may not deserve a second look, but she does.

She has moved quickly to stamp her authority. “I am the leader of the Scottish Labour Party,” she told journalists. “I’ll decide what happens here in Scotland.” A coded message undoubtedly to Jeremy Corbyn, far-left frontrunner for the UK leadership, but also a statement of intent to her colleagues north of the border.

Jim Murphy’s proposed repeal of the alcohol ban at football grounds is now off the agenda but the party will continue to campaign for the repeal of the controversial Offensive Behaviour Act. Expect to hear more about cooperation, working across party divides and putting the national interest ahead of partisan politics. The SNP will no longer be pantomime villains but partners in a dialogue.

Labour’s duty is to back her to the hilt. No briefing, no plotting, no factions. You are lucky that someone of her calibre is willing to serve; a more career-minded person would be decamping to the SNP and the guarantee of power and position. Labour activists and elected members need not invest in giant foam fingers or branded hoodies but they should understand that loyalty is essential.

I stress this because Scottish Labour’s latest leader will head into stormy seas shortly. The party is going to lose the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections and lose them badly. They will probably be left with very few or no constituency seats. If their vote continues to free fall, it’s not inconceivable (though still unlikely) that they could come third behind the Tories.

Kezia’s job is to make a decent fist of it. Set out a vision, get on telly as much as possible, and be frank and realistic with the voters. The model is Ruth Davidson, who has made this style of campaigning her own in the past year.

Jim Murphy got five months and one election defeat before he was turfed out. Kezia is going to need longer than that to get Scottish Labour’s rebuild under way. There should be no targets on seat numbers or vote shares; no expectation of anything other than the inevitable. Her job is not to keep the house standing – no one can do that – but to get set in with a hammer and nails after the collapse.

There is scope for a new, vibrant, progressive mood in Scottish Labour and Scottish politics more generally. All three major parties are now led by women and women who get along. There will still be division – that’s the point of pluralist democracy – but it can take place without the machismo and belligerence of recent years. And for Labour, there is the chance once again to be a constructive rather than a congenitally negative party.

No one within Labour is better placed to start a conversation with Scotland. Kezia understands that the object is to sell Labour’s values, not wonkish policies, and she gets that these values must reflect the transformation Scotland has undergone. There can be no return to the old relationship between Labour and the voters – stale and sexless and still staying together for the kids. The party has to work up a new partnership with the people it means to represent.

Today is a day for relief not rejoicing in Scottish Labour. Choosing Kezia Dugdale gives them a fresh start but there is no indication the voters are ready to extend the same indulgence.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Bondegezou by Creative Commons 4.0.

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