Kezia Dugdale chats to an island Labour voter

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale admitted today that much work was still needed in transforming public opinion of the party. 

On a tour of Lewis, she told “The result here at the last election was better than other parts of the country, even though we still lost pretty spectacularly. 

“We went from having 41 MPs to one last year, so it was a bad, bad result for the Labour Party.

“But I have never shied away from saying that, and we are learning from it.

“As leader of the Labour party I have got a clear job to renew the Scottish Labour Party and give people a much clearer sense of who we are, what we stand for, and who we stand with.”

We caught up with Kezia as she joined Labour candidate Rhoda Grant and island supporters at the Labour HQ on Cromwell Street.

Looking relaxed, she chatted happily with both the young and the old, revealing that the Western Isles was a place she loved to visit. 

On island-specific issues central to this campaign, one subject which had been raised was concerned with the local health board. 

“The complete lack of a chronic pain service in the Western Isles is a big problem,” she said. 

“People that are living with long-term conditions and need access to relief cannot access it here in the islands – they have to go to the mainland because the person who used to do it has retired and was never replaced. 

“If you are living with a condition like that here then it must be almost unbearable. 

“You are paying your tax like everybody else so you would expect the same degree of service.”

Across the country, said Miss Dugdale, she was seeing evidence of how recent council cuts were already impacting negatively on rural communities. 

She said: “Community groups are closing down, community centres are shutting at night, libraries are closing. 

“These cuts really hurt here in rural communities.”

While the Labour Party had consistently argued against the cuts, it was crucial that there was a credible alternative.

“Our party argues that there is nothing inevitable about council cuts,” she said. 

“Austerity is not an act of God, it is a political choice. It is something that we choose and I choose something different, which is to use the new tax powers of parliament to ask the richest people in society to pay a bit more tax, to put a penny on the basic rate of income tax, setting it 1p higher than the Tories have set it, so we can raise enough revenue to stop cuts and protect public services.”

Just up the road, the Stornoway Library café was in darkness, itself the victim of the recent cuts. 

“That’s not a saving, because there will be a price for that down the line,” said Miss Dugdale.

“That might be the only time in the week that an elderly person will come into town to find some friends or to socialise or relax a wee bit. 

“It could affect their mental health and their wellbeing, putting extra pressure on the NHS. 

“Raising tax is the only option if we are serious about protecting public services. I am genuinely just really disappointed that Nicola Sturgeon hasn’t been bolder. 

“A year ago, on the UK-wide TV debates, she became almost a celebrity across the UK by saying she was against the cuts and that she was an anti-austerity champion, and that she wanted to tax the rich. 

“A year later she has changed her mind on both of those things so that she supports the cuts. 

“Her last budget in the Scottish Parliament cut the budgets of councils across the country by £500M. 

“She has the powers to tax the rich but is choosing not to use them. 

“I don’t understand why, because every day of my life I want to tackle poverty and inequality. 

“If you have got the powers to do that, why wouldn’t you use them?”

Having flown in to Stornoway on a Flybe aircraft, Miss Dugdale was all too aware of the airline’s dreadful performance in recent months.

“Fly maybe,” she nodded, with a wink.

“The thing that really stings is the price that people here are paying to use their services.

“If flights were cheaper you might be able to put up with a few more delays although quite often you use the plane for essential things like a doctor’s appointment. 

“We need to revisit the Air Discount Scheme to make it easier for small businesses to fly in and out of the island, and more competition over who runs the route might force up the standards making them more reliable. 

“We should be able to put more political pressure on this company to recognise that this is not a hobby for people – it is a lifeline service they are running and there are lots of people who are paying a lot of money just to access a basic service. 

“The delays are unacceptable.”

In a rallying call to grass-roots Labour supporters who may have defected in recent years, Miss Dugdale added: “Scottish Labour can stop the cuts, we can invest more in education, we can close the gap between the richest and poorest kids but also make sure we are all fit for the economy and create jobs in future by using these powers. 

“People are seeing the Labour Party changing. 

“Will that turn into enough votes on polling day to see me as First Minister? That is in the hands of the people. 

“The Labour Party is getting back to its roots, those traditional values such as standing up for working people and protecting services. 

“It is the type of party people want to vote for again.”