LABOUR’S Kezia Dugdale had an unusual starring role behind the scenes during this year’s general election – playing First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.
She was called in to take on the role of the SNP leader as Ed Miliband rehearsed for the all-important televised leaders’ debates.
The Lothian MSP, now Scottish Labour leader, spent hours acting the part of Ms Sturgeon as Mr Miliband prepared for the TV showdowns.
Labour went to great lengths to plan for the debates, using a mock-up studio with lecterns, testing out the best lines and guessing what their opponents would say in response.
Senior advisers, including Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell, played the parts of the other leaders.
But a new book by BBC political journalist Iain Watson, who covered the Labour election campaign, says: “So concerned was Ed Miliband with the prospect of taking on Nicola Sturgeon that a mere backroom adviser couldn’t be trusted with playing the SNP leader.
“So he transported the party’s most senior figure in the Scottish Parliament – Labour’s then-deputy leader, and now leader in Scotland Kezia Dugdale – 200 miles to sharpen his anti-SNP lines.
“It was Dugdale who had been taking on Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood and could best analyse – and mimic – her opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.”
Ms Dugdale said the move had made sense. “It meant they had someone who instinctively knew what she was going to argue. It was a bizarre experience to spend so much time in someone else’s head, to have to think like them and think from their point of view.”
She said the lines she came up with in rehearsals were often close to the ones Ms Sturgeon used in the debate.
“In terms of the opening statement it was frightening how similar they were,” Ms Dugdale said.
“If I had one regret it would be not thinking of that line Nicola used, saying she was not arguing Labour was no different from the Tories, just not different enough.”
The first of the instant polls after the seven-way debate hosted by ITV News anchor Julie Etchingham on April 2 made Ms Sturgeon the clear winner, beating Nigel Farage by 28 per cent to 20 per cent – but three others had Mr Miliband ahead or equal with David Cameron.
Ms Dugdale said Labour had recognised from the start that Ms Sturgeon would be a formidable opponent. “Everyone knew she was going to be great. That’s why so much effort went into it, because people had very little understanding of her at UK level – she was an unknown quantity and she was not going to be held to account because no-one knew her record.”
Ms Dugdale – who also played Ms Sturgeon to help Jim Murphy prepare for his debates – said it was “a surreal experience” to rehearse in the role of the SNP leader, then watch the real debate. But she added: “It was an excellent training.”