Scottish Labour leader says it will take 'years' for party to recover from wipeout at hands of SNP

Exclusive: Kezia Dugdale says she must remind people what Labour stands for

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It will take “years” for Scottish Labour to recover from its electoral wipeout at the hands of the SNP, the party’s new leader has said, insisting that she has a mandate to remain in her post until long after next year’s Holyrood election.

With the SNP on course to record another landslide victory at the Scottish Parliament election in eight months’ time, Kezia Dugdale said she “wouldn’t want to put a number” on the number of years it would take Labour to win back the trust of voters.

In an interview with The Independent, she said her “mission” as leader was to remind people what her party stood for and open the door to a “new generation” of activists with similar values, signalling a return to grass roots and community campaigning.

Asked how long it would take Scottish Labour to fully recover from May’s election defeat, she replied: “It’s definitely years, although I wouldn’t want to put a number on the years. When I decided to put my name forward for this job, lots of people very close to me, that want to look out for me, were encouraging me not to do it.

“They were saying, ‘All that will happen is that you’ll run for next year’s election and someone will come for your head the day after’. It was undoubtedly the case, in their view, that the Labour Party was going to have a bad election next year.”

However, she said the majority of her fellow Labour MSPs had accepted that she was the best person to lead the party in “the short, the medium and the long term” because they recognised “just how much we have to do to turn the party’s fortunes around”.

Ms Dugdale added that she was not “in any way” conceding defeat at the Holyrood election and would “fight for every vote” between now and then, but her words are a clear sign that Scottish Labour’s recovery is being viewed by the party as a long term project which is not expected to yield results in 2016.

Part of the “renewal” process will be opening up the party’s October conference to new members and allowing them to debate issues such as Trident, Ms Dugdale added. While she is personally committed to maintaining the UK’s nuclear weapons system, she is prepared to reverse this policy if members disagree. “Whatever the party votes for that day will be the position the Scottish Labour Party takes,” she said.

However, one topic she would not like to see on the conference agenda is that of Scottish independence – despite a poll last week showing that a majority of Scots are now in favour of breaking away from the UK. “I wouldn’t welcome a debate on independence, in the sense that we’ve just had a huge referendum with 85 per cent of the people of Scotland voting in it…I don’t want to waste the next two, three, five, 20 years in politics just talking about the constitution,” she said.

Although she agreed that Scotland had become a “better place” because of the referendum, she warned that the vote has had “consequences” for the cohesion of the country. “I live 15 minutes from Parliament. I walk home every day from work, and I still see ten or 12 Yes posters on my walk. That makes me a bit sad, because I think despite having voted, we are a divided country,” she said.

The leader of the UK Labour Party has yet to be announced, but Ms Dugdale said she had already held a series of “private conversations” with all four candidates, discussing both the future of the party north of the border and the new powers being devolved to Holyrood through the Scotland Bill.

As well as further devolution, Ms Dugdale said her “big focus” as leader would be on Scotland’s educational inequalities – a subject on which she has repeatedly criticised the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon directly during First Minister’s Questions. But she added that for any of her messages to get through, she must first persuade people to start listening to Labour again.

“There’s no point in trying to turn out a Labour vote if there isn’t one,” she said bluntly. “A lot of what I’ll be doing in terms of the way the party organises itself is about trying to persuade people. That’s a return to more community and grass roots-based campaigning, getting party activists to be more involved in their communities. People won’t be marshalled to just go and knock 3,000 doors a month and that be the only a measure of success.”

Some have described Ms Dugdale’s role as the worst job in British politics. Having already become the leader of her party at the age of 34, she says she finds this suggestion “baffling”. But there can be no denying the scale of her task.

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