Euan McColm: Kezia Dugdale’s departure is bad news for Scottish Labour
Alex Rowley and Neil Findlay are front of the queue to be next leader, but neither man is as impressive as Dugdale.
She was a reluctant leader, a bright - if inexperienced - politician thrust into the limelight by circumstances she could not control.
After Scottish Labour was all but wiped out in the 2015 general election, winning just one of 59 Westminster seats, Kezia Dugdale stepped up to fill a leadership void. Those closest to her were quite clear - she was acting out of a sense of duty rather than fulfilling an ambition. And so, while her decision to step down this morning from the position she has held for two years may have been unexpected it should not be terribly surprising.
After the No campaign emerged victorious from 2014’s independence referendum campaign, Blairite MP Jim Murphy seized the Scottish Labour leadership and, with Dugdale as his deputy, promised to rebuild a party that has taken pounding after pounding from the SNP. But Murphy’s plans were derailed less than a year later when he lost his seat, leaving a vacancy at the top of the party.
Dugdale had previously insisted she had no desire to be top dog in the Scottish party but, with an absence of any other credible candidates, she threw her hat into the ring and won. For moderates in Scottish Labour, this was the best possible solution to the leadership problem. Dugdale is no adherent to the politics of Jeremy Corbyn. Instead, she is a pragmatic centrist of the sort that once dominated the party but is now out of vogue with new members who’ve signed up to the Corbynite project.
There was anger among those moderates yesterday as the woman who had spent two years defending the Scottish Party from the far left finally threw in the towel. As soon as Dugdale made clear her intention to step down, there was wild speculation that she had been “done in” by Corbyn’s acolytes. This I would take with a large pinch of salt.
In this morning’s Daily Record, Dugdale says that the death of her close friend Gordon Aikman, who spent the last months of his life raising cash for research into Motor Neurone Disease, the condition that claimed his life, had forced her to re-evaluate her priorities. This we should take at face value. In the end, Dugdale just didn't think the job was worth the misery it brought. Who can blame her for that?
Dugdale's deputy, Alex Rowley - formerly close to ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown - is now acting leader of the party and a front-runner to succeed her. Rowley is hardly the most impressive political performer but he is a fixer of note, with a good network of supporters across the party.
With left-wing Corbynite MSP Neil Findlay having ruled out a leadership bid, the contest to come is likely to be between Rowley and the moderate MSP Anas Sarwar. Others who might have a crack include MSPs Richard Leonard and Monica Lennon however cautious gamblers would be advised to put their money on Rowley.
Whoever succeeds Dugdale has quite the mountain to climb. In the 2016 Scottish Parliamentary elections, Labour fell to third place behind the Scottish Tories, whose Ruth Davidson is now leader of the opposition and the SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon main challenger to be First Minister after the 2021 election.
Pro-Corbyn party members believe their man’s politics hold the key to defeating the SNP but Davidson’s success (remember, the Tories were supposed to be extinct in Scotland) has surely proved that, north of the border, political parties are divided along constitutional lines rather than left v right ideological ones.
Dugdale had some cause to celebrate in June when Scottish Labour won back six of the Westminster seats it had lost to the SNP in 2015 but even her dearest friend wouldn’t argue that she had saved the party.
The completion of that task - if it is achievable - will now be down to someone else. The bad news for Labour is that none of those in the running to succeed her is anywhere near as impressive as Kezia Dugdale, a self-effacing, clever woman who has had enough of the grief that comes with leading a party still fighting for its survival in Scotland.