Kezia Dugdale reveals how she fell into politics

Kezia Dugdale MSP at Holyrood. Picture: Ian Rutherford
Kezia Dugdale MSP at Holyrood. Picture: Ian Rutherford
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IT took 90 minutes for the idea to be suggested to Kezia Dugdale. She heard last Friday at around 6pm rumours that the leader of her party, Johann Lamont, was going to resign.

By 8.45pm a call confirmed it. By 10.15pm, Edinburgh councillor Lesley Hinds was on the phone urging her to run for leader of the Scottish Labour Party.

If a week is a long time in politics, three years is a lifetime.

Dugdale was the inexperienced, new kid on the block three years ago when she was unexpectedly catapulted into Holyrood as a Lothians list MSP – because of Labour’s failure to win enough Edinburgh constituencies. She had never expected to be there, never mind become one of her party’s rising stars thanks to her competent television performances through the referendum debate and her handling of the education brief which sees her tackle the vastly more experienced SNP Education Secretary Mike Russell at Holyrood.

She certainly never considered the idea that within that short space of time she could be regarded as a successor to Lamont; a potential rival to East Renfrewshire MP Jim Murphy and long-serving Edinburgh MSP Sarah Boyack.

Her reaction was fairly immediate. “I knew I wasn’t going to do it,” she says. “I don’t have it, I don’t have the thing the Labour Party needs right now. It is flattering that some people did consider me to be in the running and I took some very nice calls about it. But I looked at Johann, who was incredibly good to me, gave me huge opportunities and chances, who has five times the political experience I have and she couldn’t do it.

“It would be incredibly arrogant of me to think I could step up and do a better job. I have the experience of being on Question Time, the TV referendum debate . . . I can work incredibly hard on my brief and for Labour, but I don’t have the steel, the sense of purpose that my party needs right now, and so I have ruled myself out.

“I didn’t even expect to get elected in 2011, so to think three years on I could lead the party . . . well, that’s rather arrogant. I know my strengths and my limits.”

That is possibly what sets her and Jenny Marra – the only other female MSP whose name was in the immediate running – apart from their male colleagues. Boyack did not throw her hat into the ring until later

“I think women are good at knowing their strengths and their weaknesses. I think they can look at a job and say I could do 50 per cent of it but maybe not the other, so won’t go for it. Men I think would say I can do 50 per cent of it so I’ll go for it.”

But she adds: “If there was a vacancy for a deputy that would be a different story. I’m a sidekick not the superhero. I’m passionate about changing the way we [Labour] campaign, how we go about our business, these are things a deputy can run with. I think I would have something to offer in that regard.

“Campaigning is where I feel I have a lot to offer. In Edinburgh, for instance, during the referendum campaign because everything was centralised we couldn’t put out a leaflet on the potential job losses which might have occurred in the financial sector which would have had a huge impact on Edinburgh.

“There was no local flexibility in the campaign. We need to 
devolve more power to local parties across Scotland.

“That’s what Obama did. It’s what the SNP have been doing, and Labour has been surpassed by them in this type of campaigning.”

She continues: “There’s a nervousness about having an MP as leader, post-referendum as it could look like we’ve learned nothing from the result. But it is possible, just as it was when Alex Salmond led the SNP from Westminster. It’s what you make of the job.

“Someone like Jim could make it work. But having a deputy and a leader both in Westminster. I don’t think that would be wise. Who would do FMQs?

“Anas Sarwar has ruled himself out of the leadership contest but says he intends to stay on as deputy. While it’s not automatic, I do think if the leader is an MP, the deputy has to be an MSP.”

Dugdale then could well be the next deputy leader of Scottish Labour. Despite her lack of years in elected office, politics has been her main focus for the past ten years, when she joined the Labour party.

Her father, a Yes-voting teacher in Elgin where she attended primary school is, she says, a Tory. Her mother, an educationalist in Dundee where she attended high school [her parents were divorced] is “a floating voter”. Joining Labour – and becoming an MSP – has been a surprise to them both.

“I was never political. My parents sometimes look at me like a zoo exhibit wondering how I ended up here. During the referendum my dad would phone me after a TV appearance and say ‘you did very well, but obviously you’re wrong’,” she says and laughs. “Even at university I was involved in the student union but only in setting bar prices and organising club nights. The political folk were geeks.

“I studied law, which I hated, but when I got to look at human rights law, US constitutional law, especially around abortion, something awoke in me and I thought this is my stuff. I was blown away by it.”

On graduation she moved to Edinburgh but failed to find work. “I was unemployed for a long time. I couldn’t even get an interview. It was the same for my flat-mate who was involved with Labour, so we’d have these long chats and she said I should join as it represented what I believed in. So I did. The first meeting I went to I ended up leaving as constituency secretary.”

She finally landed a job with Edinburgh University’s student welfare advisory body. She also began volunteering in the office of former MSP Pauline McNeill.

“It’s never been meetings that thrill me, it’s the campaigning. My first was working as election agent for [Councillor] Norma Hart in Murrayfield. She came fifth.”

Her campaigns in parliament have proven more successful, particularly that of Debtbusters, which called on the regulation of payday loan companies and encouraged the use of credit unions instead. She’s also heavily involved in Women 50:50 a new campaign to get legal gender quotas in place for all political parties and public bodies.

Gender equality is a major issue for her. It’s at the heart of the work she’s done as shadow cabinet officer for education and she believes it’s what Labour should use in its approach to the 2016 Holyrood elections.

“I think Labour needs 
something really radical on childcare going into the 2016 elections. The cost of living debate won’t go away and a major part of that for many, many people is the cost of childcare.

“This is all about women’s role in society and in the workplace. The reality is that childcare is still too often the women’s issue, so they’re tied at home, or if in work it’s low paid, low status with no security and that’s because they can’t access educational opportunities which would help them secure better work.

“One of our policies which I worked on developing is giving women in study the childcare they need, be it part-time or full-time, with extra hours so they can study up until the child is aged 12.”

But the SNP suggested 
increasing childcare in its White Paper and was shot down for lack of costing, and the lack of numbers of women who wanted to get back into work. How is this any different?

“The SNP’s ideas were built around three and four-year-olds, this policy is until the child is 12. The whole debate about childcare always centres on pre-school, as if everything is resolved when children start school. In fact it gets more difficult.

“The fact is we spend as much public money on childcare in the UK as the Scandinavian countries – we just spend it badly. In our plan, there’s no expense if the consequence is that more women can work and be economically active. If Labour isn’t talking about this, what is it talking about?”

That is the question any new leader will have to answer. For Dugdale it seems simple.

“Labour needs to know what it stands for, it needs to be clear on that and to be out there talking to people, telling them where we stand on childcare issues, on poverty – the child poverty maps are astonishing – on educational under-achievement, which is an issue we’ve known about for so long but seem incapable of addressing.

“The general election is next year. The most successful message for us has been the only way to get rid of the Tories is to vote Labour. Next year that message will be the same, but maybe, for the first time, there will be a competing message from the SNP: that Labour might not have a majority so send more SNP MPs to Westminster and we’ll back Ed Miliband as prime minister, but demand even more powers for Holyrood.”

She’s a “fan” of Nicola Sturgeon and is thrilled Holyrood is about to have it’s first female first minister. “But she needs to take women with her. She can’t be like Thatcher and get to the top and not encourage those coming behind her. It’s the same with Ruth Davidson – she’s a real pioneer in the Tory Party, but she needs to encourage others too.

“I think talented people, especially women, want to be in Holyrood. It’s been different in the past when Westminster was the only game in town. It’s different for younger generations.”

But then she drops the bombshell. I ask her if she’d ever want to be leader, if it’s a question of timing. “I don’t want to do this forever,” she declares. “It’s happened to me earlier in my life than I expected it might, it could end before I expect it to and that’s OK. I’ll go and do something else.

“I’d really like to write – I think I could write a novel. And I want to live abroad. I’m a massive sun demon – I’m just back from a week in the Canaries.

“There will come a time when I say ‘that’s it’. I won’t stand for more than three terms that’s for sure, that would take me to my early 40s, then it’ll be time for something else.”

It’s hard to believe that she’ll bow out when you hear her talk about the regressive policy of the council tax, the need to tackle how to deal with an ageing population, why Lamont was right in raising the idea that free, universal policies need to be examined further, the need for a radical agenda in dealing with child poverty. It’s unlikely any of those things will be resolved within her timescale.

But then 15 years is an aeon in politics. And as Dugdale knows only too well, things change.

Three busy years since being elected

May 2011: Elected to Scottish Parliament to represent Lothian region. Maiden speech focuses on child poverty.

June 2011: Calls for public inquiry into Edinburgh trams.

December 2011: Appointed shadow minister for youth employment by Johann Lamont.

June 2012: Launches Debtbusters campaign to take on payday loan shops. Also challenges Scottish Government’s record on apprenticeships.

September 2012: Asks Edinburgh City Council to look at providing new high school for Portobello and Castlebrae pupils.

January 2013: Publicly asks the Scottish Government to support Sands Lothians after Mortonhall ashes scandal. Government awards charity £30,000.

March 2013: Presents Debtbusters petition to Edinburgh City Council Petitions Committee.

June 2013: Promoted to shadow cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning.

October 2013: appears on special BBC Newsnight Scotland debate with Education Secretary Michael Russell MSP.

November 2013: Wins One to Watch award at annual Scottish Politician of the Year Awards.

January 2014: Appears on BBC’s Question Time in Dundee with John Swinney, Ruth Davidson and Jim Sillars. Selected by local Labour party members to be candidate for Edinburgh Eastern in 2016 Scottish Parliament elections.

February 2014: Works with children’s charities to secure greater rights for care leavers in government’s Children and Young People’s Bill.

March 2014: Launches Scottish Labour’s Every Step campaign for affordable and flexible childcare.

June 2014: Delivers speeches for Scottish Labour backing the Portobello High School Private Bill.

September 2014: Up against Elaine C Smith on STV’s Referendum Debate.

October 2014: Commits Scottish Labour to capping childcare costs and providing childcare for people studying at college.