Scottish Labour may have to scrap free tuition fees, Kezia Dugdale warns

LabourList Staff
© Flickr/Ian Dick/CC BY 2.0

A future Labour administration in Scotland would have to make “dramatic changes” on public spending such as ending free university tuition fees, according to former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale.

On the latest episode of The Power Test podcast, Dugdale argued that the widening gap between government spending and revenue north of the border means that “something’s going to have to give” with respect to current Holyrood policies like free prescriptions, free personal care, free tuition fees and new child payments.

She told hosts Ayesha Hazarika and Sam Freedman: “It’s going to be incredibly difficult for whoever comes into office in 2026 [the year of the next Scottish parliamentary elections], because a lot of these very difficult things have been kicked down the road by the current administration in the box marked too difficult.

“I don’t think that puts Anas [Sarwar] off. I think if anything he’ll actually relish the opportunity to do what Labour people do with power, which is to fundamentally reform public services and advance the role of the state in our lives in a meaningful and positive way. It’s only really Labour politicians that can do some of that hard stuff at these key moments.”

According to Dugdale, the party in Scotland will face a choice in its manifesto for the 2026 elections: “Does it want to keep free tuition or does it want to keep free school meals? If you’re talking about tackling poverty and inequality, we all know that the way to prioritise money is in those early years.

“So that, again, makes you look at higher education and tertiary education or what happens in the senior years of school and to ask some fundamental questions about how you redistribute.”

Scottish National Party MP Stewart Hosie posted on X: “So the message to ambitious young Scots and aspirational families is, Labour will scrap free education. The SNP won’t.”

But a Scottish Labour spokesperson said: “Kezia Dugdale does not speak for the Scottish Labour Party. Scottish Labour remains committed to free tuition.”

Elsewhere in the interview, Dugdale argued that independence is no longer the defining issue in Scottish politics and this allowed space for a wider debate on what she described as the need to “rewire Britain”.

“I’m not sympathetic to independence, but what I do want is to rewire Britain. I want to change the voting system, I want greater devolution and I want employment law. I want immigration powers, I want to change the way that the fiscal framework operates in practice so that Scotland grows its economy,” she told the podcast.

The former MSP continued: “Scottish politics for a decade was defined by [independence], so your position on wheelie bins was determined by your position on the constitution.

“That has changed now. Yes, support for independence is still consistent around 45%, and sometimes it tips over the 50% mark. But as an issue, it’s fallen way down the rankings. It no longer determines how people vote in the same way that it did before.”

Dugdale, who was reported earlier this year to no longer be a Labour member, added: “So we’ve moved on from the constitution, but we should be able to have a conversation that is about something other than the status quo.

“Britain isn’t working. Andy Burnham says that and Vaughan Gething says that, and there are people the length and breadth of the UK that want to talk about how we rewire Britain in a different way that represents a modern progressive democracy. You don’t have to be a nationalist to believe in that.”

Given that Labour may well soon be in power in Westminster, as well as in Scotland, Wales and many English city regions, Dugdale said she “would love that we could be really comfortable with the idea that politicians in the same party could hold slightly different positions on some of the big topics of the day”.

“It feels like we might be asking too much of our political class at the moment, but that’s the ideal world. It really shouldn’t be beyond the wit of man that we can operate on that basis, and I think the public respond really well to that. The public like a bit of truth,” she said.

On how Scottish politics will change following First Minister Humza Yousaf’s announcement last week that he is resigning, Dugdale said: “This period of [Scotland] being very focused on liberal, progressive, cultural, identity-based issues is going to end with this move from the Bute House agreement to minority government, because they just won’t be able to get some key things through.

“A SNP minority government will no longer be able to ban things in the way that they used to do. They’ll no longer be able to give out free things in the way that it used to do. And they also won’t be able to do the thing I wish they’d done at some point in the past 17 years, which is some serious reform of public services.

“So this is going to be a government that’s going to have to scale back its ambition. It’s going to have to focus on bread-and-butter issues like the NHS and the economy, and it’s going to have to secure support across the parliamentary chamber to do anything at all.”

The interview in the latest episode of The Power Test, which describes itself as the “weekly podcast for those of us crying out for a better Britain”, is out now.

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