Lothian MSP Kezia Dugdale stood for the number two job in Scottish Labour – but now finds herself on the front line. The 33-year-old is effectively the leader of the party at Holyrood and about to shoulder the responsibility of taking on Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions.
In an exclusive interview with the News, the MSP says it is an “exciting” prospect, but emphasises the weekly showdown in the Scottish Parliament chamber is not the most important political focus.
Ms Dugdale decisively won the deputy leadership with almost 63 per cent of the votes in the party’s internal contest, marking a meteoric rise since she first became an MSP just three-and-a-half years ago. But because new leader Jim Murphy is an MP and does not have a seat at Holyrood, she will have to stand in for him until he becomes an MSP – which may not be before May 2016.
It’s the same role Nicola Sturgeon had to play when Alex Salmond took over the leadership of the SNP in 2004 while he was still at Westminster.
Ms Dugdale says: “It’s quite exciting to go up against Nicola Sturgeon, there’s no doubt about that, but the job of rebuilding Labour’s fortunes in Scotland doesn’t start at 12 o’clock on a Thursday and it’s also not the bit of the job I was applying for.
“I stood because I wanted to change the way the Labour Party campaigns and organises and presents itself. That’s where I see a big part of my job and my responsibility – modernising the way we do things and making sure we are focused on the future.”
First Minister’s Questions has changed since Ms Sturgeon replaced Alex Salmond in the wake of the referendum.
“Just watching Nicola for the past few weeks, she has certainly taken a different tone from Alex Salmond,” says Ms Dugdale. “For a start she is attempting to answer the question – I don’t think she’s answering it very well, but she is attempting to answer it, which is something he never set out to do.
“I think she is also quite genuine when she talks about the need to build consensus – and on that I’m in agreement.
“There is a lot more in common between the SNP and Labour than there is between either of us and the Tories.
“Where we do agree we should be proud to say we do.”
She does not want to give too much away about how she plans to tackle the role. “I’ve got a few ideas about how to approach it a wee bit differently,” she says.
But she warns her debut this Thursday should not be taken as a benchmark.
“It’s the last one before Christmas, which traditionally has a festive feel to it. So I wouldn’t read too much into how I approach this week’s one,” she says.
“We might as well have Santa hats on for how much like other FMQs it will be. The real new tone and approach will happen in January.”
Will the fact there are three women leading the main parties make a difference to the set-piece clashes?
Ms Dugdale is not so sure. “People said wasn’t it great to have Nicola Sturgeon and Johann Lamont going head to head during the referendum and we might get a new style of politics, but then people saw the programme and thought two women can do as much political squabbling as two men. All will depend on the style and approach and behaviour of everybody involved.”
And she indicates she is likely to adopt a less partisan attitude. “I think I’m less tribal than some other Labour or SNP figures. I don’t hate the SNP. I’ve many friends who are members of the SNP.
“I don’t come at it from that tribal perspective or with the baggage that maybe some people do.
“I won’t be going in to oppose for opposition’s sake.”
So she says she will try to “do everybody proud” at FMQs and rise to the challenge. But she adds: “I’m also very clear that my job as deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party is about more than 12 or 15 minutes on a Thursday lunchtime. Yes, that’s the day the eyes of the world are on the Scottish Parliament but in many ways that’s where we are getting it wrong.
“We need to do a lot more to reach out to people and rebuild the trust and for people to understand who the Scottish Labour Party are and what we stand for.”
Soon after Ms Lamont quit as leader, Ms Dugdale made clear she would not bid for the post, despite plenty friends and colleagues urging her to go for it. Indeed, she went further and told the Evening News she planned to limit herself to three terms as an MSP and would quit in her early 40s.
But she said she was interested in being deputy. “I’m a sidekick, not the superhero,” she said.
For now, she is happy to take on a key role. But she stresses that Mr Murphy will be far from an absent leader and will regularly be seen around Holyrood, even though he is not an MSP.
“Jim is only ever going to go to Westminster to take part in key votes,” she says. “He said very clearly to the party that his priority is not only to be in Scotland but to be in Edinburgh.
“He will be hands-on, in the parliament, chairing shadow cabinet meetings as much as possible. When he can’t, I’ll be there. We are going to work as a team.”
Mr Murphy will have a parliament pass to come and go as he likes.
And Ms Dugdale says Labour’s Edinburgh office will now have more staff and be better deployed.
Polls show Labour trailing the SNP by as much as 20 per cent ahead of next May’s UK general election, amid suggestions the party could lose all but a handful of its seats in Scotland, thus reducing the chances of a Labour government at Westminster.
“It is very worrying,” admits Ms Dugdale. “We get that it is very serious. We know there is a tremendous amount of work to be done in the next five months to try to turn that around, but we think that can be done.
“Jim has said, and I agree, that we can hold every seat that we have in Scotland, but it’s going to be hard work.”
She says Labour’s message must be that the general election is a referendum on David Cameron as prime minister.
“We chose to remain part of the UK,” she says.
“Two million Scots voted that the best way to build a fairer society was together across the whole of the UK and next May they get to decide who is going to be the prime minister for the next five years. Only two people can do that. People have two choices – you can vote for SNP politicians to go down to London and fight with the Tories or you can vote for Labour politicians to go down and replace the Tories. It is that simple.”
RAPID RISE TO PROMINENCE
KEZIA Dugdale was born in Aberdeen on August 28, 1981. She studied law at Aberdeen University and later took a masters degree in policy studies at Edinburgh University.
She worked as a public affairs officer for Edinburgh University Students Association and then the National Union of Students.
In 2007, she became full-time assistant to Labour stalwart George Foulkes after he was elected to Holyrood.
Four years later, she was elected an MSP herself. Just seven months later, in December 2011, she was appointed to the front bench as shadow minister for youth employment by Johann Lamont.
And in June last year, she was promoted to shadow cabinet secretary for education and lifelong learning.
She launched the Debtbusters campaign against payday loan companies and was seen as one of the No campaign’s best performers during the independence referendum campaign.
She is standing in Edinburgh Eastern at the 2016 Holyrood elections.
ALL CHANGE IN SHADOW CABINET
EAST Lothian MSP Iain Gray was today made Labour’s education spokesman in an “all change” shadow cabinet reshuffle by Jim Murphy and Kezia Dugdale.
Mr Gray, below, who was previously finance spokesman, is a former physics teacher and a spokesman said he was being entrusted with improving the life chances of poorer children, one of the top priorities identified by Mr Murphy.
No-one is being kept in the same job under the reshuffle.
Rising star Jenny Marra was named as the new health spokesman, replacing Lothian MSP Neil Findlay.
Mr Findlay and fellow Lothian MSP Sarah Boyack, who both stood for the leadership, were being offered roles.
Ahead of issuing the list of appointments, Mr Murphy said the line-up marked a fresh start.
He said: “Every member of the team has worked hard but it’s time to shake things up. That means no member of the shadow cabinet will stay in their current post.
“This is a crucial time for Scotland and I will put together a team that can reach out to Scotland. It’s a big change for the Scottish Labour Party.
“It’s not important to me who members of the shadow cabinet voted for in the leadership contest. We need a new team of all the talents across our party to put forward a positive vision.”