Kezia Dugdale looks back as she signs off as MSP
KEZIA Dugdale says she has no regrets about becoming Scottish Labour leader - no regrets about quitting and no regrets about going on I’m a Celebrity get me out of here.
And now, as she calls time on her roller-coaster career as an MSP, she is sure she is doing the right thing in moving on.“I always said I only ever saw myself doing two or three terms because I wanted to have the same passion for it on my last day as I did on the first.“But it’s fair to say I’m disillusioned with party politics and in particular the Labour Party.”She cites two factors in particular - the way the party went back on its promise to pay her legal costs in the defamation case launched against her by Wings over Scotland blogger Stuart Campbell and Labour’s failure to campaign more strongly against Brexit. But she insists she is not about to leave the party.Ms Dugdale was first elected as a Lothian MSP in 2011, became deputy leader in 2014 and leader the following year.She says one of the highs of her time at Holyrood was helping ensure the go-ahead for the new Portobello High School in Portobello Park.
And she looks back with pride on the Debtbusters campaign she ran against payday loan companies. “The whole campaign started in a street surgery when I met a guy in The Jewel who had got into tremendous debt because of a mobile phone contract. By the time I met him he’d borrowed money to pay off that debt, taken out payday loans, taken out a personal loan and ended up remortgaging his house because he couldn’t keep on top of all the debt repayments.“That showed me how many people working in this city on relatively low wages were really struggling to make ends meet even though they were in full-time paid employment.“At that time there were nine payday loan shops in the Kirkgate. We stood outside them with stalls and a giant shark to warn people against the dangers of interest rates. “Back then Wonga could charge over 3000 per cent APR on the loans. Wonga have gone bust now and that’s largely down to the work of people like [Labour MP] Stella Creasey and the army of volunteers we built together against the payday loan industry.”
She was first thrust into the national spotlight during the 2014 independence referendum.“If I had to pin it to a day it was the day I went head to head with Elaine C Smith in the independence debate on STV. It was the most-watched debate of the campaign.
"Each side put up three people and the programme was divided up into sections. Yes put up Elaine C Smith on welfare to talk about how much fairer an independent Scotland could be and the No campaign played me as a bit of a wild card to put the alternative case of how Scotland could be fairer if we stayed part of the UK.
"It went really well, at least people told me that, and I felt everything changed after that.”
But she says there is no doubt she became leader too early.“I never set out to be leader of the Labour party,” she says. “What I really wanted to be was Education Minister in a Labour Government. That won’t happen now, but I have a lifelong passion for the power of education.“I chose to stand for the deputy leadership and I was excited to do that - I did an interview with the Evening News at the time and said I was a sidekick not a super hero. I always felt my skillset was much more suited to being a deputy leader - being a team player, organising the campaign, keeping everybody together.“But then we lost 40 of our 41 seats, the leader [Jim Murphy] lost his seat too and suddenly it felt like the world just turned and pointed at me.“Of course I had a choice - I could have walked away. But that felt like a cowardly and wrong thing to do, so I stepped up rather than step away.“I don’t regret it - it was a huge honour and privilege to lead this precious thing called the Labour party and I feel I did a lot of good during that time, put education at the forefront of our message, brought on a lot of new talent in the party, secured the party’s autonomy - which is written into the rules, whether people choose to exercise those rules is a different matter but it’s there.”She had talked of being in the job “for the long haul” - but after two years she announced she had decided to call it a day. “Two things happened - my best friend [Motor Neurone Disease campaigner Gordon Aikman] died and that made me think a lot about what made me happy and how short life can be and if you’re not happy you should make changes.“And I started to hear rumours that there were people around me who thought I was doing an all right job and things were getting better, but they were going to come for me two years out and once I’d done all the heavy lifting to get the party back in shape there would be a leadership challenge and their successor would lead us into the next election.“When I heard that I thought ‘Ach no, I’m not having this, I’ll go of my own accord, on my own terms, I’m not going to be pushed out by anybody’.“I don’t think it’s fair to say I was pushed out but it was definitely on my mind that people were plotting to get rid of me. I was sent screen grabs of group chats and text messages that people were having.”Soon after she stepped down she caused controversy by jetting off to take part in I’m A Celebrity. She received a written warning from the Labour group.But she says: “I don’t regret it, I’ve never regretted it for a second. “There’s a stunning difference between how people responded in the Labour party in the parliament and how people in the real world responded.“On 95 per cent of occasions if not more, people I meet say good for you, I’d have done the same, why not?, it was only three weeks, it’s just a bit of fun, and people then want to ask about Ant and Dec and do you get sent pizzas at night? !It’s the most watched family show in the whole of the UK. So what if I crawled through fish guts? If I made people laugh, then great. If I didn’t, I was back at my desk within three weeks and two days. People need to get over it.”Ms Dugdale received a total fee of £70,000 before tax for taking part in the show.“Money is always a delicate thing for politicians to talk about,” she says. “I said at the time I was doing it to be a better known political figure and I did do that, but I also did it for the money because I had big legal bills to pay with regard to the separation from my ex-partner. But I did donate several thousand pounds to charity out of my fee, And I’ve donated over £30,000 of my earnings to charity over the time I’ve been an MSP, most of it to Motor Neurone Disease Scotland, but various other charities as well.”But she can’t discuss what of her jungle experience was broadcast and what was left out - because she has never seen herself starring in the show.“I haven’t watched a single second of it,” she says. “I don’t know if I don’t want to or if I haven’t had the time, I can’t work that out yet. They sent me the whole thing as a set of DVDs. But I don’t have a DVD player so I would need to find one for that. I don’t know if that’s terribly modern or terribly old fashioned - I’m probably caught in the middle. One day I might get to watch those.”Ms Dugdale steps down as an MSP to take up her new role as director of the John Smith Centre for Public Service at Glasgow University on July 15.
"The saddest moment I've had in the past few weeks was when I did my last surgery. I always loved doing my surgeries - all across the city in supermarkets and community centres. I think that's the most important job an MSP has. I'd like to think I've helped people along the way."
“I’m sorry to be going but I do think it’s right. I’ll be 38 in August - I was 29 when elected. I’ve still got at least 25 years of working life but what I will always do is some form of public service and there are many versions of that - it doesn’t have to be elected office. I’m proud of the work I’ve done as an MSP. It’s time to do something else.”