Kezia Dugdale has the best job and the worst job in Scotland.
She is the leader of the Scottish Labour Party, a torment even Torquemada would have backed away from. Dugdale’s thirties will be spent performing CPR on a party that will likely slip into a coma anyway. In return, she gets a nice mention in her successor’s first speech five years from now.
But there is one pretty awesome perk: She’s unsackable. Everyone knows the 2016 Holyrood elections will be horrendous for Labour so there are no unrealistic expectations, no targets to miss, no rivals who can credibly promise to do any better.
The sheer scale of the challenge she faces would daunt many a seasoned political operator but if she has any moments of private doubt, and she would have to be one of those SNP robots she worries about not to, it didn’t show in her speech to the party’s conference in Perth this weekend.
The address was her first as Scottish Labour leader and a rattling-gun performance that amplified her best turns at First Minister’s Questions.
The Scottish Conservatives “want to talk about the past because they don’t want to defend the terrible record of David Cameron’s government,” she said. Nationalists, meanwhile, “want to talk about the arguments of the past because they can’t defend the threadbare record of their Scottish Government.”
The Tories were imposing austerity on Scots, she railed, but the SNP was failing in its responsibilities too. “The SNP exist to get to the next election, the next referendum,” she told delegates. “Governing is only ever a staging post, never a purpose.”
The Nats’ mixed record on health and social justice was lambasted but she saved her fieriest rhetoric for the subject of education:
I say to the SNP after eight years in charge: I will judge you on your record. And I will judge you above all on your record on education. Every child you have left behind, well that neglect offends this Labour movement.
Every single one of the 6000 children who has left a Scottish primary school this year, on your watch First Minister, unable to read properly. Well, that record disgraces this nation and it constrains its future.
Turning to the former First Minister, she took a shot at the sandstone monument he unveiled to his higher education policy before leaving office:
Alex Salmond put a monument to himself in one of our universities, with his tuition fee pledge on it. Let me tell you what I’ll put in our universities. Every youngster from our poorest families who has the potential to get there. That’s the legacy I want to leave in our universities.
And until their chance of getting there no longer depends on which school they went to, how much their family earns or what someone decided their place was when they were five, then you won’t find me carving complacency and self-congratulation in stone.
The rocks will melt with the sun before I accept even one working-class boy or girl who can’t get to university just because their family wasn’t rich enough or their school wasn’t posh enough or the system just did not believe in them enough.
There was plenty of criticism of the Scottish Government’s policy scorecard — or “SNP bad” as Nicola Sturgeon and the cybernats call it — but there were alternatives set out too.
If her party pulls off a (heroic) victory at Holyrood next year, Scottish families would have all tax credit money cut by the UK Government restored by Edinburgh. (The Nats demand to know how this would be done, known strict constructionists of the devolution settlement that they are.) A “Fair Start Fund” worth £1000 per head would be established for the most deprived school pupils and the money spent by headteachers rather than local authority beancounters.
Young people in care, whom Dugdale called “the children you and I are responsible for bringing up”, would receive a grant of £6000 per year to pursue higher education.
None of these policies will be implemented (unless the SNP pinches them) because Scottish Labour is even further from power than UK Labour. But it gives some much-needed substance to Dugdale’s leadership, even if the policies are standard Labour fare.
What was more daring was her commentary on Scotland’s turn to nationalism. So much of political and public life has allowed itself to be swept along, bobbing corks in the slipstream of patriotism. Dugdale staked her place against the tide:
What is Scotland after all? Well it’s just us. It’s not a concept. It’s not an ideal. It’s not a dream. It’s just people. Individual people deciding whether they genuinely see the humans they share their country with as their equals.
This provocatively cosmopolitan view will be a source of seething for many a blood and soil nationalist. Even their more civic brethren have reified the nation so much that they no longer see independence as a shortcut to social justice but a form of social justice itself.
Dugdale’s paean to internationalism, and pointed praise for “our capacity for positive self-criticism, constant self-examination”, needed to be said but caution and diplomacy are essential. It’s the job of the opposition leader to challenge the government, not the country.
This time last year, Dugdale was Scottish Labour’s education spokesperson and had been an MSP for just three years. Jim Murphy was not yet leader and she not yet his deputy. In the space of 11 months, she has been propelled to the top of a party in catastrophic collapse and has handled it with outward equanimity.
Her confidence is a long-term project but it is slowly growing and she commanded the stage of the Perth Concert Hall in a way unthinkable a few months ago. She doesn’t look like a First Minister yet but she has found a voice and is carving out an alternative language to the SNP’s rhetorical twofer of victimhood and national strength. She is also honing her skill at getting under Nicola Sturgeon’s skin by highlighting her government’s prosaic record on social justice.
It was a very good speech, in places an excellent speech, but it’s not enough.
Dugdale has ideas. She has passion. She has energy.
She doesn’t have the voters. And they’re what matters.