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Peter MacMahon's Politics Blog: Kezia Dugdale says "I'm in it to win it"

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale during her speech at the Perth Concert Hall Photo: PA

Once all powerful in Scotland, her party is languishing in the polls. It was nearly wiped out north of the Border in the UK general election. It's deeply divided at Westminster.

That's the background against which Kezia Dugdale has to lead Labour in Scotland into this year's Holyrood elections.

Seasoned political commentators have suggested the party of Donald Dewar, Gordon Brown and John Smith might even end up third behind the Tories in May.

When I interviewed Ms Dugdale for Representing Border earlier this week she dismissed these suggestions.

"I'm in this to win it. I absolutely want to be First Minister," she told me. She talked of aspiring to be in Bute House, the First Minister's official residence in Edinburgh, of being a Labour government again. "That's what I dream of every day," she added.

But is it just that - only a dream? The polls suggest Labour is some 30% behind the SNP. That looks like more of a nightmare.

What does Ms Dugdale plan to do about it? Central to her strategy is a bid to present Labour as the true left-of-centre party in Scotland, in contrast - as she would see it - to the SNP.

Can Ms Dugdale find her way into Bute house? Credit: PA

And central to that are Labour's plans for taxation, which Ms Dugdale has called "progressive univeralism"?

Doesn't exactly trip off the tongue. What exactly does that mean? According to Ms Dugdale, it is the universal provision of public services with the "well-heeled" paying extra in income tax.

Specifically if she won power she'd introduce a 50p income tax rate for those in Scotland earning more than £150,000 a year, around 14,000 people.

The money would fund schemes to close the attainment gap between children from poorer and better off backgrounds.

But the powers to do that will only come to Holyrood in 2017 and probably not be used until after that.

What of the powers the parliament has now - to raise, on indeed lower, the tax across all bands. The legislation as it stands says it has to be all bands. Nicola Sturgeon and her finance minister, John Swinney, have said that raising income tax for all by say 1p in the pound would be 'regressive', hitting the lowest paid hardest.

But Ms Dugdale told me: "I would agree with the argument that it is not regressive to put up income tax under the current proposals."

In that case would Labour advocate using these powers, putting up income taxes across the board to use the money to help the poorest?

I asked her this several times and she refused to rule that out, saying: "I am going to have an ambitious policy programme."

Former Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont Credit: PA

What of former Labour leader Johann Lamont who questioned the policy priority of universal benefits such as free tuition fees, free prescriptions for all, and free school meals for all pupils in primaries one to three.

Ms Dugdale replied that she had supported Ms Lamont when she raised the issue of "something for nothing" culture, and supported her now. Up to a point....

The Labour leader told me: "I supported her (Ms Lamont) at the time. I think she's right. Johann and I are in exactly the same position on this."

However, when I pressed Ms Dugdale on whether she would then remove - to take one example - free tuition fees from the better off she said she would not.

She told me: "My approach would be to keep University tuition free but to focus on student support mechanisms that gets more money into the pockets of the most disadvantaged pupils."

The Scottish Labour leader also said she supported the retention of free prescriptions for all and the free school meals policy.

Reading these remarks, Ms Dugdale's political opponents in the SNP are likely to claim that Labour's policy is confused, that they might be less polite.

The SNP will claim that it is inconsistent to say you support Ms Lamont and then to back the retention of these universal provisions.

And that debate be one of the big issues in the forthcoming Holyrood election campaign which, with the new powers coming into force, will focus more on tax policy than any previous Scottish election.

She may well be "in it to win it" but for Kezia Dugdale, achieving that aim will be taxing in many different ways.

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