Kezia Dugdale: Is she tough enough to take on Nicola Sturgeon?

How do you begin an interview with Kezia Dugdale?

I just want to give her a hug and tell her everything’s going to be okay.

Except it’s not. Dugdale heads a party battered and bloody from its last encounter with the voters. The Holyrood election on May 5 is set to be another drubbing. There is a very real possibility Scottish Labour will come third behind the Tories.

There are positives, though. Labour has got back its fighting spirit. The membership, which is up on last year, has a sharper sense of what their party stands for. Dugdale has been a thorn in Nicola Sturgeon’s side, pointing out the chasm between the First Minister’s lefty rhetoric and her actions in government.

The “Red Tories” shtick isn’t going to wash anymore. Dugdale has reasserted Labour’s social democratic purpose with, amongst other policies, a pledge to put 1p on income tax to offset Scottish Government cuts. The 34-year-old tours the country denouncing austerity – Tory and SNP – and makes the case for greater investment in schools and care services.

And when pushed on who would have to foot the bill, she doesn’t shy away from telling Middle Scotland, pandered to through nine years of SNP triangulation, that the party’s over and it’s time to cough up. It’s not exactly Old Labour but it’s not terribly Blairish either.

“It’s not raising tax for tax’s sake,” she assures me. “It’s to try to invest in schools, invest in education, to invest in vital public services. If you look and see we have free prescription charges, free tuition, free personal care, you’ve got to recognise that somebody has to pay. All I’m arguing is that those with the broadest shoulders should pay a bit more tax to protect the things that we all rely on.”

The wisdom of the strategy is open to question. Labour’s working class base has fled to the SNP and many seem bent on voting along constitutional rather than economic lines. In former red heartlands in Scotland’s central belt, Nicola Sturgeon’s popularity ratings border on the North Korean. All the same, though, Dugdale rejects my suggestion that it would make more sense to target middle class Unionist voters with a less radical economic platform.

She says: “If you look at the general election result, going from 41 to one MP, I think the massive take-home message from that — there were many — but probably the top one would be that people didn’t know what the Labour Party stood for anymore.

“The first thing I have to do as party leader is answer that question. So I’m able to say, because we’re going to use the new powers of the Scottish Parliament to make different choices from the Tories, that we can stop the cuts. We are the party prepared to raise the money that we need to protect public services.”

Her conversation with Scotland is still in its early days but the polls don’t show much enthusiasm for her and no rekindling of affection for Labour north of the border.

How does she rate her performance so far?

“I think I’m doing a really good job,” she maintains. “I don’t normally blow my own trumpet but I have to because you’re asking me the question. Who put educational inequality right at the top of the political agenda in Scotland? Who’s been talking about using the tax powers of the Scottish Parliament to do things differently?

“I think you would agree that most weeks I have a good week at FMQs. I’ve landed a few punches on the First Minister. The first two TV debates went really well. Most papers called it for me or if I didn’t win it, I was second. And that’s all the public-facing, media-orientated stuff.

“Behind that, there’s all the work I’ve got to do to renew the Scottish Labour Party to make sure that it’s fit for the future. So trying to bring forward new candidates, having a much clearer sense of who we are, dealing with the autonomy of the Scottish Labour Party, refreshing out relationship with the trade union movement, which has suffered in the past.”

As if being humbled by the Nats last May wasn’t bad enough, Scottish Labour could be staring the ultimate humiliation in the face if Ruth Davidson’s Tories manage to beat them to second place.

The Scottish Conservatives are running an unabashedly Unionist campaign and dogging their former Better Together comrades as soft on separatism.

Davidson points to Dugdale’s undertaking, given in 2015, that Labour MSPs would be free to back breakaway in a second independence referendum. The Tories crowed too when she told an interviewer that she could “possibly” support independence if the UK quit the European Union.

To many in the remaining rump of Labour supporters, this kind of loose talk is toxic. They didn’t much like the first referendum and fear holding out the possibility of a second one will drag Scotland further down the road of Belfast-style identity politics. And to some, holding their noses and voting for the Tories might just be worth it this time.

Why would she give Ruth Davidson an open goal like this?

She is defiant: “I fought as hard to stay in the United Kingdom as every other No politician. I was there with Ruth Davidson and Douglas Alexander on the STV debate, making the case. And I had the hardest gig in that debate because I had to argue why the UK was good for welfare, why it was good for social security, right at the time the social security system was being attacked by the Tories. I stepped up every time I was asked to defend the United Kingdom and I believe in it to my core, absolutely without question.”

She adds: “Why are we having this discussion at this point in this election campaign because I am really genuinely worried about a politics in Scotland that is forever determined by whether you were Yes or No. This binary idea that you’re either for or against something. Because good politics is about the grey area; it’s where you find consensus; it’s where you find progress; it’s where you move things on. I really don’t want Scottish politics to be for or against Yes or No forevermore. What unites people in the Labour Party is a desire to tackle poverty and inequality. That’s our number one purpose; that’s what we’ve always existed to do — to help working people.

“So on the constitution, we are absolutely solid and sound but nobody joins the Labour Party to that end. They join because they want to fight poverty and inequality. If I can bring people who voted Yes and No together to vote for the Labour Party, then I think I’m doing a good thing for the long term of Scottish politics.

“Now, that means I’m walking a tightrope. Sometimes, as you’ve identified, I fall off that tightrope. The reason I keep climbing back on it is that I believe it’s the right thing to do. Not for my party but for the long-term future of politics in this country. The idea for a second that I would do anything other than vote to remain in the United Kingdom’s a nonsense.”

Hang on, though. Surely she accepts that, were the SNP to commit to holding a second referendum if reelected, and subsequently won another majority, they would have a mandate to do so.

Her first response sounds like a non-answer: “Our manifesto will oppose a second referendum. I would vote against a second referendum in the lifetime of the next parliament.”

Even if the Scottish Government won a majority?

“Yeah. I’ll tell you why,” she elaborates. “We were told this was a ‘once in a lifetime’, ‘once in a generation’ thing and I think because that’s what we were told, and because of the debate that we had, over two and a half years, that led to 85% of the population casting a vote, that that result should be respected.

“I believed Nicola Sturgeon when she said that. So I think somebody has to stand up for those No voters and say, ‘No, I’m sorry. This was a once-in-a-lifetime, once-in-a-generation thing. We said No. Now is the time to focus on using the powers of the Scottish Parliament.”

Another go: Does she really believe there should be no second referendum even if the country gives the SNP a mandate to hold one?

“But there will still be a body of people in Scotland who want to vote No, who believe it was a ‘once in a generation, once in a lifetime’ opportunity and I seek to represent them.”

One last time. There’s no mandate for indyref 2, even if the people vote for the SNP on a pledge to hold one?

Her final answer, curtly: “I think I’ve made it really clear to you that what I’m seeking to do is to represent those people who want to move on from the referendum.”

It’s as close as I’ve ever heard a Labour politician get to rejecting the sovereign will of the Scottish people as a constitutional precept.

Any conversation with Kezia Dugdale will touch upon education at some point.

It’s what drives her. Both her parents are teachers and she is evangelical about the opportunities afforded even the most deprived pupils by good schooling.

One group of children exercises her in particular. She tells me: “If you were going to make rapid progress to close the gap between the richest and the poorest kids, I would suggest that you look at looked-after children first. If you look at the tariff scores of these kids, they make about an eight of the progress of your average Scottish student. I think that’s an absolute scandal. It angers me to my core that we just accept, just because these kids don’t have a mum and dad, that they’re born to fail. That we can’t have better or higher aspirations for them.

“Now, of course more money in that direction would help them. But do you know what they need more than anything? They need love. They need someone to believe in their potential, in the possibility of what their lives might be. That can be a great teacher; it could be the school business manager who says hello in the morning and slips them a sandwich. Whatever it is, that sense of love and that access to opportunity could make such a big difference to that particular child’s life.”

Given all this, it strikes me as odd that Dugdale, who initially supported the Scottish Government’s Named Person scheme, now wants it “paused”. That her change of heart has coincided with both an election and polls showing public opposition to state guardians is no doubt pure coincidence. Surely a Named Person would be useful in providing the kind of “love” she talks about, or at least giving troubled kids the benefit of somebody to notice the warning signs.

Looking back, it’s at this point that our conversation becomes more terse — more tense, too — and never really recovers.

“I don’t think I’ve ever suggested for a second that a named person could close the gap between the richest and the poorest kids,” she insists.

“No,” I concede, “but you’ve U-turned on this–”

“No I haven’t.”

“You’ve called for a pause–”

“Well–”

“You said before that–”

“When you pull up to a traffic light and you hit the brake,” she demands, “is that you turning round in a different direction?”

“Okay, well I’m mixing my metaphors.” I try a more conciliatory tone: “You have stopped at a traffic light and there’s lots of traffic beeping the horn behind you. You’re causing a big delay and people are shouting and gesticulating.”

“See, this is my point,” she snaps, jabbing the table with her finger. “This really annoys me, Stephen, because we’ve just talked about Scottish politics becoming Yes/No, for or against, black and white, no grey area, right?

“Look at the detail of what I actually said. I said I support the principle of this; I want it to work. But parents have lost faith in it before it’s even been introduced. So if you want it to work, you have to stop, ask the question: What has happened here that means people have lost faith in this system? Try and rebuild that and then move on.

“Which is why I said I want an independent person, the children’s commissioner, who incidentally supports the Named Person and argued for it, to be the one who would lead rebuilding the faith in this particular system.

“The Named Person principle is sound because it’s about trying to protect those kids who are not the most vulnerable but, through a pattern of behaviour over a period time, might lead to them requiring some sort of intervention that means they need help. That’s all it’s about.”

If she wasn’t keen on that question, the next one went down like a mug of fresh pine tar.

I ventured the Ed Miliband question: Are you tough enough to be First Minister?

“Absolutely,” she begins and already there’s exasperation in her tone. “We’re not having a ‘hell yes’ moment but I find that — I know you have to ask the question — but I find it really patronising. Why are people asking me that? Because I’m 34 and I’m female? Because it’s my first election?”

I tell her I think it’s her age.

“Why? Is that too young to be First Minister?”

Not necessarily, I explain, but I reckon people look at Sturgeon and see she has more years and more experience and comes across like a leader.

“What do people want from their politicians? I think they want conviction, they want a bit of principle, people who have a plan, who are prepared to do things bravely and boldly and a bit differently. If we want a parliament full of experience, watch it be filled with stale, pale, male people like it has always been. I think Scottish politics is better for having a variety of different people in it from different socioeconomic backgrounds, different ethnicities, sexuality, gender, all of that.

“I want a parliament that looks and feels like the country. I think if I was the First Minister of a Labour government at 34, you’d be damn sure the team sat behind me supporting me every step of the way would look and feel like Scotland and would carry the experience that you would need to be able to put forward a plan for government.”

The remainder of our exchange is pretty abrupt.

“You gonna come third?”

“Was that a question or a statement?”

“I’m just asking. Are you going to come third?”

“No, I want to win this election. I want to see Nicola Sturgeon as the leader of the opposition.”

“Are you going to be the leader of the Scottish Labour Party a year from now?”

“Yes. And many years hence.”

And… breathe. That was… intense.

My problem with Dugdale is not that she’s a woman or that she’s 34 or that she U-turns on policy.

My problem is that I feel sorry for her. I feel sorry that the future of an entire political party rests on her shoulders. I feel sorry that she’s outflanked and outspent by a Nationalist juggernaut. I feel sorry that ten years ago she would have been a Holyrood minister by now or PPS to a rising star at Westminster. I feel sorry that there’s nothing she can do to turn any of this around before May but she’ll still get the blame for it.

I don’t want a First Minister I feel sorry for. I want a ruthless bastard and I don’t get that from her. If Nicola Sturgeon found an injured rabbit in the street, she’d whip out her phone, take a selfie and issue a press release blaming Westminster. Ruth Davidson would throttle the bunny to death then tell Gordon Brewer it was plotting to foist a second referendum on Scotland. Kezia would phone the Scottish SPCA.

That’s just who she is: Nice, decent, does the right thing. Hell no, she’s not tough enough but I reckon she’ll get there. She’s about to be buried and have her party’s grave gleefully danced on. That’ll toughen her up. She might even come third. That’ll toughen her up. Then she’ll have to deal with chancers who will want to use May’s result to take her job. That’ll certainly toughen her up. (Not that slapping down her risible would-be successors will involve much effort; most of them would have to Google their own name to find out who they are.)

Toughness matters but so do passion, insight, and imagination and Dugdale has those in bucketfuls. She knows what Labour’s problems are, in Scotland and across the country, and even if she doesn’t have all the answers, she is asking the right questions. It’s why how she does in the election doesn’t interest me half as much as what she does after it.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Scottish Labour by Creative Commons 2.0.

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