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I was the Head of Policy and Public Affairs at UNISON Scotland until my retirement in September 2018. I now work on several policy development projects, so all views are very definitely my own. You can also follow me on Twitter. I hope you find this blog interesting and I would welcome your comments.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Oh joy, another Labour leadership contest

Scottish politics may be many things, but boring it isn’t. Just when you think we are in for a settled period, the Scottish Labour Leader, Kez Dugdale, resigns.

With hindsight, it was perhaps not a great surprise. Kez has always made it clear that she didn’t see being a politician, let alone party leader, as a long term career. Getting out when you are young enough to make a shift isn’t easy, but I always sensed that she was one who would stick to her goals.

Of course that doesn’t entirely explain the short tenure. There will be a mix of personal and political reasons for that. However, Labour’s strengthened position, which she is entitled to take some credit for, makes her long term planning more difficult. It would be difficult to resign after Scottish Labour makes progress in the next Scottish Parliament elections, and that means around ten more years in office. That would be daunting for a politician with a very thick skin, and that isn’t Kez Dugdale.

Any reasonable human being would find being a political leader in Scotland an unpleasant experience. Scottish politics can be unrelentingly rancorous when you are in the firing line, with attacks on the personal and the professional. Particularly online, some people feel they have a licence to say things that they wouldn’t dream of saying to someone’s face.

The Scottish Labour Party isn’t an easy beast to lead either. Kez comes from the more urbane, socially liberal Edinburgh political scene - one that isn’t the same as the more socially conservative west of Scotland. She wasn’t a hard core unionist, which upsets another section of the party and rightly pitched for a federalist policy that gave Labour a distinctive middle ground position on the constitution. She did make some gaffs on the constitution, although she was also honest enough to admit when she made a mistake – a rare trait amongst politicians!

Politically she came from the right of the party, even if she wore her ideology lightly. Despite her radical left wing policy shifts, more radical in many ways than the UK Labour manifesto, she was never going to be fully accepted by many on the left. The decision to openly back Owen Smith in the UK leadership didn’t help, and was the major political mistake of her leadership. Staying above the fray would have been the sensible decision, but loyalty to her pal Owen Smith trumped the easy option. Endearing qualities in any human being, but party leaders sometimes have to be a bit more ruthless.

As I have said and written, I was an admirer of her as a leader. She brought a different style of political leadership to the job. It reminded me more of a modern public service leadership style. The emphasis was on collaborative working rather than heroic leadership. Her personal style reflected her leadership approach. I remember my first meeting with her after the leadership election. One of her first actions had been to convert the abrasive John McTernan’s office into a open room with soft furnishings – the message could not have been clearer!

It may well be that as the job got tougher, she relied a little too much on the advice of her political mentors and base. Most political leaders drift into a bunker mentality, but it usually ends badly. I also don't buy the link to Jeremy's recent visit, or the silly season stories in The Herald, based on sources that know little or nothing about the Scottish Labour Party. Of course the general election strategy should have changed later in the campaign, but she wasn't the only one not to the scale of movement in the polls.

None of this stopped her taking radical decisions. The shift on income tax made Scottish Labour the anti-austerity party and demonstrated that Labour’s policy was more than rhetoric. Greater party democracy, even when she knew that this would mean conference taking positions that she didn’t personally support. Her support for a more federalist position, included arguing for greater devolution on issues that previous leaders had rejected. She may have not have always liaised as effectively with the UK leadership as she should, but there was no lack of radicalism in her positions.

I worked closely with her on the internal reforms that have now made the Scottish Labour Party much more autonomous. I gave her a range of options and she chose more radical options than I expected. Even when she knew there would be resistance from comrades in London. That is a legacy she can rightly be proud of.

In my, probably less than humble opinion, Kez Dugdale did well as the Leader of the Scottish Labour Party. I am not just being polite, as is traditional on these occasions, not least because I have not ducked her mistakes. The balance sheet is overwhelmingly in her favour and she can be proud of what she achieved. I would still be supporting her today, had she chosen to stay. I understand her reasons for going and we all have to respect them, as well as the way she handled her resignation.

That leads us into another leadership contest. The speculation on that is for another day. What I would say comrades, is remember how much progress we have made in recent months and conduct yourselves in a way that strengthens the party and the cause of socialism.

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