There’s something I don’t get about Kezia Dugdale.
She’s young, bright and articulate. She has a law degree and a postgrad in public policy. She could make a career for herself as a solicitor, businesswoman or think-tanker.
But she doesn’t want any of that. She wants the toughest, grimmest, least-rewarding job in British politics. She wants to be leader of the Scottish Labour Party.
What the hell is wrong with her?
She laughs when I put the query to her. “To be absolutely honest, that question’s gone through my mind as well, particularly in the summer. And the answer is that I think Scotland needs a strong opposition in the Scottish Parliament. I think the Scottish Labour Party is the answer. That’s not an arrogant assumption that there must always be a Scottish Labour Party because I recognise that this great party that is the heritage of what I believe in is failing to keep up with globalisation, the modern world, devolution, what Scotland is and feels like in 2015. But I think it can change to meet those goals and it has the right values and principles to apply to the great challenges of the future.”
I first became aware of her as a blogger. The SNP had just eked into power at Holyrood and Labour staffer Dugdale was penning one of the few readable bulletins on Scottish politics. This was in the days before Wings over Scotland and the explosion in alternative online content, when the choice was between the tediously earnest Better Nation and the waspish Scottish Tory Boy.
Then came Labour’s first tartan nakba, the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections, where the party was routed and the SNP gained an overall majority at Holyrood. List candidate Dugdale was elected for the Lothian region and found herself under a succession of short-term leaders before being thrust into the spotlight as a prominent and effective No campaigner in the independence referendum. Elected deputy leader to Jim Murphy (#HunkyJim #Murphalicious #callme), Dugdale earned serious spurs up against Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions. That crash course in street-fighter politics came in handy when Murphy was forced out after Labour’s Natmaggedon in May and she was left favourite to take the top job.
The ensuing leadership contest has been deathly dull, something she attributes to her genuine friendship with rival Ken Macintosh, but I want to get a sense of who she is and what she believes.
We spend Sunday afternoon chatting over coffee before taking in a show at the Edinburgh Festival, an annual inconvenience that transforms the city from its original purpose as a setting for Scotland on Sunday feature interviews into a cobble-stoned Gomorrah of seasonal rents, parking fines, and Foster’s on tap as alternative comedians with BBC panel shows film material for their new box set and fragrant students push flyers for stand-ups staged-named Phil and birth-named Tristan.
Which is to say none of this would happen in Glasgow. Not because we’re fundamentally at odds with Edinburgh – one of the advantages of nationalism is its sublimation of cultural difference – but because people know better than to interrupt a conversation in a pub on Sauchiehall Street to invite people to an interpretive dance revue about Gaza. We don’t care if The List gave you five stars, we’ll glass you.
Dugdale is very Edinburgh. Not the caricature of monied metropolitanism but the Edinburgh that is looser than the rest of Scotland, a tolerant, kinetic, European capital. Thirty-three-year-old Dugdale is open and relaxed, her shoulders unseized by resentment. Her election as leader would see Scottish Labour take on a less hectoring tone. If she is a harbinger of the next generation of Scotland and its politics, there is hope for a broad, liberal future.
“Edinburgh is really a microcosm of Scotland,” she posits. “We’ve got rich and poor; we’ve got a diverse mix of people and backgrounds; we’ve got a gigantic bit of volcanic rock in the middle. It is Scotland. Look at it!”
She adds, tauntingly: “It’s definitely better than Glasgow too.” I remain to be convinced on both points.
We go to see Boris: World King at the Pleasance Courtyard, a two-hander comedy-drama that documents the rise of the blond basileus of City Hall from “humble origins at Eton” through the ranks of right-wing journalism and Tory politics. The show’s conceit is that Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson struck a pact aged nine with a reactionary God to faux-bumble his way to the throne of world government. The diadem seized, he would then restore the natural order displaced by feminism and put women back in their place. It’s a lefty premise pulled off with minimal piety and Conservative sceptics of the BoJo phenomenon will share its shrewd cynicism about the Uxbridge MP’s court-jester-meets-loveable-rogue shtick.
Dugdale and I both enjoy the satirical hijinks, though she is more concerned than I am that Boris could find himself fingering the nuclear launch codes. London isn’t the country; the capital once swooned over Ken Livingstone too.
What are her politics? Is she, for instance, a socialist?
“Definitely,” she shoots back. “To me socialism means redistributing power and wealth. There are different extremes of socialism because you might have some people who feel making money is a bad thing; I don’t agree with that. I think we should encourage people to create wealth but that wealth should be shared for the betterment of everyone.”
“If you tackle poverty and inequality, everyone rises,” she argues, a neat inversion of the Thatcherite creed. “I believe first and foremost in people, the capacity of people and the government’s role in unleashing that potential.”
She is open to public ownership of the railways but draws the line at nationalising energy companies, which she fears would divert resources from tackling problems like child poverty.
On the face of it, politics was an unlikely career move since her family was not political when she was growing up. (Her dad Jeff, now a Twitter celebrity in his own right, has since become a Nationalist and ribs his daughter on social media about her party and its policies. “Why don’t you listen to him,” I ask on behalf of an SNP-supporting Twitter user. “Why doesn’t he listen to me, goddammit?!” she pleads with mock outrage. “I do listen to my dad; I listen intently. He’s wrong.”)
Even at Aberdeen University, she maintains she wasn’t a political animal, spending her time running the student union where her key policy area was bar prices. This seems at odds with the woman sitting across from me, who drops street-level voter turnout figures into casual conversation and admits to staying up on the night of the 1992 general election colouring in a DIY electoral map. (She was 11.) For all her protestations, Dugdale is obviously a total political geek but endearingly so and with a life beyond polling numbers and parliamentary strategy.
Sofas, Scotland and separatism
Although she felt her politics begin to develop as a teenager, particularly around institutional racism and women’s reproductive rights, she credits an old flatmate with recruiting her to Labour. Dugdale was 23 and unemployed. She recalls: “We couldn’t get jobs. We spent most of the day in our pyjamas, talking about the world, watching Trisha, and applying for jobs. Living the dream. Michelle was a member of the Labour Party and she told me, ‘The things that you like, the things that make you angry, are the things that the Labour Party is all about. You should join.'”
From idle chatter over daytime TV to the cusp of leading a major political party in just ten years. The pace of her ascendancy speaks volumes about Dugdale’s talent. And if there is one thing Scottish Labour finds itself lacking, it’s talent. The party has just lost 40 out of 41 MPs, including formerly rising stars like Gregg McClymont, Tom Greatrex and Gemma Doyle.
I ask Dugdale why things went so disastrously wrong in May.
“Are you joking? We’ve got a show to see in an hour,” she quips, before venturing: “Lots went wrong. Looking back, there’s quite a few things we could have done differently. Would it have changed the result? No. When Jim and I came into office, we were 23 points behind and we were hoping to close the polls by one point a week; we ended up further back than we started.
“It was a very centralised campaign. We had lots of money and lots of resources but it was all spent through the office in Glasgow. So we had identical leaflets going out to every part of the country, where the message that you want to put out in Edinburgh about the financial sector and jobs connected to that is different from rural transport issues you want to talk about in Fife or housing issues in the East End of Glasgow. It’s technologically easier and cheaper now to have more nuanced messages and we didn’t do that.”
In the end, it came down to the referendum. “We gave up trying to win back Yes voters and moved on to trying to keep No voters in the final weeks of the campaign. That angered people because they felt we were trying to reheat the arguments of the referendum, which lots of people want to leave behind.”
She is clear that she did not disagree with the tactic – the point is not to dump on her predecessor, towards whom she is steadfastly loyal – but admits she found it “depressing”.
The former West Dunbartonshire MP Gemma Doyle has floated the idea of balloting Labour members on whether to campaign for or against independence in a future referendum. “It’s a really interesting idea and I would instinctively support it,” Dugdale says. “I haven’t thought it through right to the last letter to give you a 100% commitment… But I like the idea of putting it to a vote so it’s got a democratic mandate.”
That said, she would personally campaign against separation in a re-run of September’s vote. That is because she still believes in “pooling and sharing resources” across the UK as a progressive principle. “That’s redistributing wealth. That’s socialism.”
Preparing for a second referendum will be an unavoidable fact of life for Scottish Labour’s next leader. Scotland’s attachment to the SNP appears more religious by the day, as a stubborn section of the public rewards what some see as an uninspiring record with ever more fevered levels of devotion. The troubles of the Scottish NHS are dismissed with Dianetic resilience as the fault of Westminster and even much-criticised education outcomes cannot dissuade parents from the road to Moriah. The latest pollsgive the Nationalists a towering lead in the Scottish Parliament elections to be held next May, with 62% planning to vote SNP and the remaining 38% practising their “So Long, Farewell” solos.
Happily Dugdale takes a more prosaic view of recent developments.
She argues: “You can’t deny that identity’s a bit of it and I fear for a future Scotland where how you vote in a general election depends on whether you’re Yes or No rather than whether you’re Red or Yellow or Blue or Green. But it’s less about identity and more about emotion. The Labour Party has a bad habit of trying to fight arguments with rational solutions. Here’s a problem, here’s how we’re going to fix it. What we don’t do is talk emotionally about how we think and feel about our country. Now people want a bit more of that ‘softer’ analysis.
“To be angry is an emotion. People are angry about food banks, people are angry about inequality, people are angry about the lack of pace around change. Our solution is to produce a fancy policy document with 160 ways to solve the problem, instead of saying we’re angry too but this is the way to fix it, not that way. We’ve got to be a bit more emotional. I worry about using emotion sometimes because it sounds weak to talk about emotion, as if to argue with emotion is weaker than arguing with rationality. It’s not. It’s more powerful and more politicians should do it.”
Emotional assertiveness is one thing, and as leader she would find herself talking a lot about values, but voters want to know what it all means in practice. The Dugdale policy agenda is best summed up as “it’s the education, stupid”.
She tells me: “This sounds like a geeky niche thing but one thing I care tremendously about is future jobs, where they’re going to come from. A lot of them are going to be in technology industries, subjects that girls are least likely to do, and there’s a big gender equality issue in that. I’m making a speech on Tuesday about education in the informatics building of Edinburgh University. There are professors there who teach people in Uruguay to teach kids how to code because they recognise that coding and programming are skills that kids will need in the future. Those same professors are not doing that in schools in Scotland and I think that’s a massive problem.”
Her reverence for education is perhaps to be expected of the daughter of two teachers and she returns to it time and again during our interview.
“We have falling literacy and numeracy standards. The gap between the richest kids and the poorest kids in our schools is as big as it’s ever been. It’s frustratingly stubborn but very little has been done in the past eight years to tackle it, to try to invent and do new things with the goal of closing that inequality. Labour’s future lies in talking about opportunity and equality and how our ideas will bridge the gap and make a fairer, more equal world for everyone.”
A Nicola Sturgeon love-in
And for all she is charged with the most heinous of crimes in modern Scotland – conspiracy to hold the SNP to account – the Lothian MSP speaks of her admiration for the party.
She explains: “I don’t think there’s been one big radical reform or anything that’s particularly progressive. But if I could pick one thing, it would be the promise of a childcare agenda. A massive expansion of childcare to help women access work is a fantastic economic policy and I’m really pleased that it’s increasingly seen as an economic rather than a social policy in this country. ‘Affordable childcare shouldn’t be a luxury; it should be a growth strategy.’ The words of Hillary Clinton, not my own. We need more of that.”
She lacks that tribal hatred of the Nats that is in the bones of the generation above her and she can envision the two parties working together at Westminster, though short of a coalition. This comes across vividly when I ask for her take on Nicola Sturgeon.
“I think she’s fab,” she replies before I’ve finished the question.
“I know, me too,” I confess.
“This is going to be a bit of a Nicola Sturgeon love-in,” she guesses accurately, adding: “I get a row off my team every time I say this and I tell them to bog off because it’s true… I think she’s very strong, she works incredibly hard. I think I have a decent work ethic; she must work double the hours I work in a day.
“I feel bad that she didn’t take a proper holiday. I think she should have and I think it’s nobody’s business how long she went and where she went and how many emails she read while she was there. I want her to have more of a life. That’s not to be critical in any way; it’s her choice to do what she does. But I think she deserves to have more fun.
“I still think she encourages people within her party to assume the worst of people in the Labour Party. I would like to see a bit more of her publicly saying that these are good people who have different views.”
Dugdale jousts weekly with Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions and while she has bested the SNP leader more than once on education and health, her awkward questions are invariably slapped aside as “talking down Scotland”.
“‘Stop talking down Scotland’, ‘It would all be better if we didn’t have to pay for Trident’, and ‘P.S. What about Iraq?’ are three things she has to throw in a toolbox when under pressure and she’s a politician who is going to grab things out of that box and throw them to get out of the scenario. I think it cheapens the debate.”
If Sturgeon had really wanted to wrong-foot her at FMQs in the last nine months, Dugdale suggests that she should have owned up to problems and promised to fix them. “That would’ve stumped me. I’d have been going: ‘S—, I’ve got three pages left of questions here. What am I going to do?'”
Looking in the mirror
Still, it’s easy to analyse her rival’s performance. Does Dugdale think when voters look at her they see someone who could replace Sturgeon as First Minister in ten months?
“They haven’t seen much of me yet, she said with a cape. I said to my colleagues when I put my name forward for this job that it was a long-term project; that the problems our party has didn’t happen overnight and they couldn’t be fixed overnight. I’m going to give next year’s election everything I’ve got. I’m going to set out a stall. I’m going to renew the Scottish Labour Party – that’s the purpose and objective of me should I win. I want people to see that the Labour Party’s changing. I want it to meet their hopes and aspirations for the future and if I’m successful in that, people will vote for us.”
When she looks at herself in the mirror, I press, does she see a future First Minister?
“I would love to be in a position of power because that’s the only way you make change. For all the community organising you can do to make small changes, you need power to make the big changes. If I didn’t think it was possible at some point in the future, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
Do I see her in that role? No, not yet. She is still young and relatively untested, quite apart from the daunting scale of Labour’s electoral disadvantages. Then she says something during the course of our time together that gives me second thoughts. The subject is the crisis on the Mediterranean and at Calais, so she will choose her words carefully with public opinion and tabloid headlines in mind.
But she doesn’t. She just tells me what she thinks.
“The Tory government are looking at what’s happening at Calais and seeing numbers instead of people. It’s not a migrant crisis; it’s a humanitarian crisis. These are people willing to take incredible risks, do the most dangerous things, because what they’ve left behind them is far scarier than anything that could possibly be in front of them. I can’t believe we have a government that sees that and thinks the answer is higher fences and more dogs.
“There must be a diplomatic solution, a more carefully crafted solution across Europe where we can stop the horror of this happening on our own shores. The indignity of it. I know some people will say that’s being ‘soft on immigration’. No, it’s looking at another human being and seeing them in a desperate, perilous state and thinking that politics must offer something more than anger about this.”
And she agrees her party could be clearer in its moral abhorrence of what is happening: “Labour’s answer is: ‘Can we just organise a focus group and get back to you?'”
In a few sentences, and with sincere feeling, she says what every single Labour leadership candidate, MP and party spokesperson should have been saying from the start. Maybe she is young and green in parliamentary terms but no one can doubt she is a leader.
There is a politics that lies beyond flags and rallies, accusations and animus. It is the politics of the old, social democratic Scotland and could with good will and hard work be the politics of Scotland once again, whether under devolution or independence. No more desperate fear but an offer of real hope and material change as an alternative to unfunded promises and the redemptive power of national strength. A politics that is both progressive and pragmatic, patriotic and outward-looking.
It is the promise of such a fresh politics that Dugdale presents. She might not be able to stave off the end of the United Kingdom; perhaps no one can. But she can lead Scottish Labour, in the Union or outside it, to a new relationship with the voters. Passion and energy will be required to withstand the inevitable drubbing next May and begin Scottish Labour’s slow, painful rebuild. She has both in truckloads and a mind for policy that will come in handy when Scotland feels ready to talk about schools and hospitals and jobs once again.
And there’s her idealism, which is so infectious it touches even a cheerful pessimist like me. Even with Scottish and UK Labour teetering on a cliff edge, she believes the future lies with open, reforming, centre-left politics and parties that want to make active government and dynamic markets work together. More than it needs a new leader or policy agenda, Scottish Labour needs to regain that spirit of optimism.
Originally published on STV News. Feature image © The Climate Coalition (UK) by Creative Commons 2.0.