Scottish Labour steps out of the shadows?

By Daniel Kenealy

On Saturday 15 August, 33 year old MSP Kezia Dugdale was elected leader of Scottish Labour. She has been an MSP since 2011, elected from the Lothian list, and has served as deputy leader of the party since December 2014, when Jim Murphy began his ill-fated run as leader. Throughout last week she was actively delivering speeches on educational inequality, on Labour’s relations with business, and appeared at an outdoor event to engage with voters about what their priorities are.

She also found time to announce her new top team. Scotland doesn’t have an official opposition in the way that the UK parliament does. But clearly Labour are the nearest thing to the official opposition in the Scottish Parliament. Conventionally, leaders of oppositions appoint a shadow cabinet, a senior team of individuals to shadow the cabinet. Dugdale has sort of refused to appoint a shadow cabinet, and has tried to use that fact to make a point about Labour’s values. I say sort of because, well, it’s all rather muddled and a tad gimmicky.

Instead of appointing a senior Labour MSP to shadow the nine cabinet secretaries of the Scottish Government, Dugdale has appointed MSPs to broad portfolios with titles such as ‘equality’, ‘opportunity’, ‘wealth creation and public services’, ‘democracy’, ‘reform’, ‘environmental justice’, ‘community’ and ‘justice’. On the surface this really does feel like the sort of thing that you did as a student politician. Come up with some snazzy titles and hope that will convey a message. The claims that this heralded a fresh start are somewhat blunted by the fact that: (a) most of these new portfolios do effectively correlate with cabinet secretaries in the Scottish Government; and (b) most of them are filled by the same faces that held the corresponding portfolio before Dugdale’s election (see table 1). The portfolios are a little messy in that they cross-cut in quite complex ways with Scottish Government cabinet portfolios (see table 1).

Dugdale’s rationale is that people in Scotland are no longer sure of what Labour’s values are. She has thus taken the opportunity to appoint people with titles that reflect Labour values. Sounds straightforward, right? There’s an obvious problem. Go and find me the political party who stands opposed to equality, opportunity, wealth creation, democracy, justice, communities, and so forth. Struggling? I thought so. Values are important but equally important are the policies that you’ll put in place to ensure that those values are furthered. At a time when the SNP are vulnerable on core policy areas such as education and health it might be advisable for Jenny Marra and Iain Gray – respectively now equalities and opportunities spokespersons – to behave, to all intents and purposes, as if they are shadow health and education secretaries.

Opposition leaders have experimented with stuff like this before. When he was elected leader of the UK Conservative party in 2003, Michael Howard wanted a slimmed down shadow cabinet, complaining that the body had grown unwiedly at 25+ members. Instead, Howard appointed a smaller team of a dozen to lead the Conservatives’ charge against Tony Blair as he sought his third term as Prime Minister. Howard’s rationale, at the time, was to find a core leadership who could effectively communicate the party’s message going into an election campaign.

As The Guardian reported it back then, Howard wanted “a tight inner core to focus ruthlessly on the big issues that will determine the next election, rather than a conventional team that would chase every government announcement”. Howard himself remarked at the time: “This shadow team is a radical departure from past practice. The role of opposition is very different from the role of government. There is therefore no reason for the opposition to mirror the structure of government”. Dugdale channeled Howard last week when she announced her new team.

In government, at the European level, the current Commission president Jean Claude Juncker reorganised his team of 28 Commissioners into project teams, focused on key issues that trascended any particular portfolio, such as digital single market, energy union, social dialogue, jobs and growth, and so forth … There remained Commissioners responsible for specific directorates but above them are a set of vice-presidents, serving to coordinate the work of the Commissioners around several core priorities. It reminds one of an ill-fated experiment in UK government with coordinating ministers.

This does raise a question about what such broad spokesperson roles might mean for government? Of course, and with no disrespect intended, Scottish Labour are probably at least five and a half years away from government in Scotland. But the question has to be asked of Dugdale: is this way of organising your top team purely about oppositional tactics and gimmicks? Or is it something that you might seek to retain when/if you ever move into the First Minister’s office?

This matters because Scotland is one of only two governments in the world (the other being Sweden) to operate a ‘government as single organisation’ model. Since the SNP came into office in 2007 they have been attempting to create a system of joined up government in which separate departments/ministries are abolished in favour of a single organisation. This now exists in Scotland, on paper, but much work remains to be done to implement joined-up government in reality. One of the problems is that, despite removing departmental boundaries on paper, they still exist between directorate-generals (DGs) and directorates. There may no longer be a separate department for health but there remains a DG health. Further work is required to both join up central government and also to join central and local governments. Part of that work might just involve thinking in non-conventional ways about how to organise policy.

The bottom line: In all likelihood this move away from the traditional shadowing business will likely have no material impact on Labour’s fortunes. But it does raise some interesting questions about how to think about policy portfolios and the allocation of responsibilities in government.

Position on Dugdale’s frontbench (And appointee) Equivalent in previous Labour shadow cabinet (And appointee)  

New portfolio responsible for …


Shadowing which Cabinet Secretaries?

Equality Spokesperson

(Jenny Marra)

Shadow Health Secretary

(Jenny Marra)

Health, equalities, welfare, care, social inclusion Shona Robison; Alex Neil
Opportunity Spokesperson

(Iain Gray)

Shadow Education Secretary

(Iain Gray)

Schools, childcare, skills, lifelong learning, sport, science, workplace issues Angela Constance; Roseanna Cunningham
Justice Spokesperson

(Graeme Pearson)

Shadow Justice Secretary

(Hugh Henry)

Justice, policing Michael Matheson
Wealth Creation & Public Services Spokesperson

(Jackie Baillie)

Shadow Finance and Economy Secretary

(Jackie Baillie)

Finance, infrastructure, business, public service delivery, tourism John Swinney; Keith Brown
Environmental Justice Spokesperson

(Sarah Boyack)

Shadow Environment Secretary

(Sarah Boyack)

Transport, environmental and rural affairs, land reform, climate change, energy, oil and gas Richard Lochhead; Keith Brown
Community Spokesperson

(Ken Macintosh)

Shadow Communities Secretary

(Ken Macintosh)

Housing, local government, cities, planning, island communities Alex Neil; Keith Brown
Democracy Spokesperson

(Claire Baker)

Shadow Culture and External Affairs Secretary

(Claire Baker)

Constitution, Europe, culture, power in society John Swinney; Fiona Hyslop
Reform Spokesperson

(Mary Fee)


N/A Party and parliamentary reform N/A
Parliamentary Business Manager

(James Kelly)

Parliamentary Business Manager

(James Kelly)

Labour in Scottish Parliament Joe FitzPatrick (Minister, not a Cabinet Secretary)
Chief Whip

(Neil Bibby)

Chief Whip

(Neil Bibby)

Labour in Scottish Parliament Joe FitzPatrick (Minister, not a Cabinet Secretary)
N/A Shadow Infrastructure Secretary

(Mary Fee)

Portfolio divided across Wealth Creation, Environmental Justice and Communities N/A
N/A Shadow Fair Work and Skills Secretary


Portfolio now sits in Opportunity N/A


Daniel Kenealy is a Lecturer in Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh Academy of Government.

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