Lacking political experience, Kezia Dugdale believes her personal insight into voter apathy and national division has equipped her for ‘mission impossible’, she tells Dani Garavelli
Kezia Dugdale is on her laptop, laughing at a Twitter photograph of MSP Iain Gray getting into a DeLorean car. She says she was late for our meeting because she was looking for the perfect image of Marty McFly on a hoverboard as her own personal tribute to Back To The Future Day. And that’s when it occurs to me: could there be a more fitting time to interview the current leader of Scottish Labour, a party caught between the successes of the past and the uncertainty of the days ahead?
Dugdale is the woman charged with transforming Scottish Labour’s destiny. To do so, she must rediscover its traditional values and sell them to a generation that lost its faith. That’s some challenge. The previous day, Dugdale was at a Stand Up For Steel stall as Tata announced 270 job losses at plants in Motherwell and Cambuslang. As she peeked into prams and chatted to pensioners, her rapport with ordinary people was unmistakable. But it didn’t stop Yes voters telling assembled Labour activists that “they campaigned for the Union so they deserved everything they got”.
Today, we are sitting in an office which seems to be a physical representation of Labour’s current woes. On one wall is a row of campaign posters from its heyday: Labour For Homes; Use Your Head – Support Your Team; and Keir Hardie’s 1910 general election address. On the other is a whiteboard with a simple diagram showing Dugdale’s strategy to pull the party back from the brink. The diagram – comprised of arrows and bubbles – tells it to renew its values, its vision of the future and the Labour family. It fits neatly into the whiteboard’s top left-hand corner.
On Friday, Dugdale will flesh this strategy out at her first conference. She knows how much is at stake. “There’s three sort of tests being set for me, and that I’m setting myself,” she says. “I have to prove the Scottish Labour Party is autonomous. I have to show we have a belief, a vision of what the future of Scotland might look like. And then there’s the question of whether or not I am credible enough to hold the position I have.”
When it comes to her own credibility, Dugdale’s problems are diametrically opposed to her predecessor’s. Jim Murphy was a heavyweight, but couldn’t convince people of his sincerity. Few doubt Dugdale’s authenticity but, with little experience and a laid-back personality, some wonder if she has the mettle to lead a party, particularly one that is on its knees.
In many ways, Dugdale is the antithesis of the X Factor era politician. She has no Obama-esque backstory; there is neither a history of activism dating back to the womb, nor a conversion on the road to Damascus. Far from spending her infancy in a bottom drawer, she grew up an only child in Elgin in a private house with a garden, a bike and lots of freedom.
Her move to Dundee as she started secondary was a bit of a culture shock – all those green fields replaced by concrete, and kids heading to the chippy. As she rose from being a middle-of-the-road pupil in Elgin to top-in-the-class in Dundee, she caught an early glimpse of the attainment gap that has become a personal obsession. But Harris Academy in the city’s west end was no-one’s idea of a sink school. She thrived there, playing hockey and becoming head girl.
What about her parents’ divorce when she was 15 then? Surely that produced some Trisha-style angst? But no, she insists not. “Because I could see they were really unhappy, it was a positive experience for me. It meant they could go off and be what they wanted to be.” Her parents’ fears she might be damaged were eased when she attained excellent Standard Grade results.
Dugdale’s first real brush with unhappiness came when she went off to do law at Aberdeen University – and quickly realised she had made a mistake. “I remember walking into the first lecture and seeing all these students wearing the colours of their private schools,” she says. “Despite my middle-class background and being given lots of confidence to go to university, I felt massively out of place.”
Changing faculty would have cost her, so she saw it through, but it meant that when she got her degree she had no idea what to do. Unemployed, she moved to Edinburgh, where she applied unsuccessfully for jobs, watched “crappy” TV and came under a heap of pressure from her parents. They wanted her to do her diploma so she could practise law as a last resort, but she refused. “What a typically middle class rebellion. Man the barricades, eh?” she laughs.
All this time, Dugdale showed little interest in politics. Her parents, Jeff and Gillian, who started out as teachers, inculcated a belief in the value of education, and she was instinctively drawn to the battle for equality, writing her modern studies dissertation on Stephen Lawrence and institutional racism. Her first political memory is the 1992 election, when she sat at home with colouring pens and a chart, but Blair’s victory in 1997 passed her by. Her only recollection of the landslide election that swept away 18 years of Tory rule is footage of him walking down the line outside Downing Street and people waving flags. She didn’t even enter a polling booth until she was 23. “I am embarrassed about it now, but it just didn’t factor into my life at all,” she says. “I understand how almost 50 per cent of the population can go through Scottish Parliament elections and not vote.”
When Dugdale did join the Labour Party – after her flatmate said it embodied the values she espoused – it was grass-roots activism, not electioneering, she most enjoyed. Her first job was as welfare officer at Edinburgh University Students’ Association, where she spent half her time helping with housing, money and sexual health problems and the other half running campaigns on dodgy landlords or waiting times for counsellors.
Dugdale’s friend, Gordon Aikman, the former director of research for Better Together, who met her while studying at Edinburgh, describes her as a “force of nature”, not letting go of a problem until it was solved. For her part, she says she enjoys “processes and systems”. “I loved the combination of taking somebody’s first-hand experience and using it to change a system fundamentally.” It’s no surprise, then, that the achievement she is most proud of is her successful campaign on pay-day loan companies.
From welfare officer, she worked her way through a variety of roles, including public affairs officer at the National Union of Students and manager and political adviser to George Foulkes, before being unexpectedly elected as list MSP for the Lothian region in 2011. No-one seems more surprised than her by her rapid rise to education spokesperson, deputy leader and finally leader.
As Dugdale became more political so too did her dad. Jeff, who was depute rector of Elgin High School when he retired, is now an ardent SNP supporter. In their divided loyalties, the Dugdales are no different from families up and down the country. But Jeff is a prolific Twitter user and, though proud of his daughter, is not averse to giving her a public ticking off. When she criticised Nicola Sturgeon for reportedly saying she wanted the Tories to win the general election, he tweeted: “Check facts before opening mouth, Kezia” – a moment she describes as the ultimate “beamer”. She no longer worries about what he’s up to. “It is fascinating, though,” she says. “It helps me understand divided Scotland. We are not one nation now. As much as we are all trying to come back together, the referendum kind of burns on. I see it as emotional, not rational. My dad will see something on Wings Over Scotland and post it. For him, it is as relevant a source as the Financial Times because it reinforces what he already believes. And because I can see somebody in my family doing that, I understand that’s there’s 100,000 other people who feel exactly the same way.”
Those closest to Dugdale talk of her loyalty, her wit and the way she brings out the best in people. Aikman tells me how she cancelled everything to come with him on the day his neurologist broke the news he had Motor Neurone Disease. She has been instrumental in his fund-raising campaign, but she also helps care for him, bringing him supplies and even sleeping over when he is on his own. Other people describe her as “humble”, a “great nurturer of talent” and “not one of those women who would pull the ladder up behind her”.
But there is a flipside to all this praise. Might Dugdale be so loyal she will be unable to ditch her friends when necessary? Or so willing to consult that she will be unable to take decisions? There are those too who cite moments of impulsiveness, like when she said a Jeremy Corbyn victory would leave Labour “carping on the sidelines”. What strikes me most is her lack of guile and her honesty about her own flaws.
“Whereas somebody who has been in politics for 20 years has the experience to know what to do in situations, I don’t. I just have my gut instinct and the way I approach my working life.” This is just one of the dangerously ingenuous things she says about herself. She will happily talk about some misjudged tweet or how badly she performed on Question Time (her assessment, not mine). There’s an argument that such self-deprecation is the product of deep inner confidence. Even so, at times, she reminds me of a deer out in the open at the height of the hunting season.
Dugdale insists her willingness to confront her own weaknesses is an asset because she can address them and that recent events – such as Corbyn’s victory – prove the public is ready for a more open, less hierarchical style of politics.
This is the thinking behind the big innovation of her first conference: opening it up to members who can debate whatever they choose on the last day. “This is about renewing the Labour family, about making people feel they actually have a voice and a say,” she says. But, given these members will almost certainly choose to debate Trident, won’t this simply lead to splits and in-fighting, especially given that three Labour MSPs have already signed an SNP motion opposing its renewal?
“It’s no secret that there are different views within the party – why not create the space for them to be aired,” she says. If Trident is debated at conference, there will be a vote and the vote that takes place will determine the position of the conference. “It’s that simple. The days where you can just say: ‘This is where we are going, everybody follow me’ are dead. I will do it on other issues. I’ll demonstrate leadership on education or other big meaty issues in our manifesto, but it doesn’t have to be like that across everything.”
The conference will also hear feedback on a pilot scheme that has seen five constituency parties swap door-knocking for more grassroots activism. In Motherwell, for example, party member Peter McDade has been organising Wishaw to Calais, an aid convoy carrying supplies to refugees. The idea is to use the organisational capacity of the Labour party in a different way so it’s more rooted in the community. “What we are finding is that members who haven’t been to a meeting in years are starting to come back out,” says Dugdale.
So now we have an insight into efforts to rediscover traditional Labour values. But what of the party’s vision for the future? We know health and education will be at the heart of its Holyrood 2016 campaign, but, as yet, little about what exactly it plans to do about – for example – closing the attainment gap. Dugdale is aware people want more than just criticism of the SNP and says there will be a sprinkling of policy announcements next weekend. But for now, she prefers to talk about her hopes for a more consensual politics, where the obsession with short-term targets could be swapped for strategic planning and a bigger vision. Her gripe is that Scotland’s relentless cycle of elections has made it impossible to undertake the kind of radical reforms that might really make a difference, particularly on the NHS.
This would sound more convincing if Dugdale – as leader of the opposition – wasn’t generally the one leading the charge on such matters. And indeed when Audit Scotland’s report exposes failings in the NHS the following day, Scottish Labour is not slow to point out it is “missing targets in seven out of nine key performance indicators”. But Dugdale believes that, after the 2016 election, some kind of quasi-truce might be possible. “I think there’s a space for party leaders to go into a room and say: ‘Right, come on, are we serious about changing the country? If we can be more relaxed about pushing you on targets, can you be more relaxed about serious reform? Can we have a different kind of conversation?’”
Inside the office, Dugdale’s idealism seems to offer hope for the Labour party and society at large. But outside, life is carrying on as normal. Those who feel betrayed continue to talk of Red Tories, and Dugdale’s Twitter feed continues to fill up with accusations of hypocrisy over steel and apathy over Evel. For all her optimism, Dugdale knows exactly what she’s up against. In contrast to Murphy, she offers no pledges that she will turn the ship around before May 2016 and often jokes about her own predicament. After her leadership victory, she tweeted: “Mission Impossible has a happy ending, right?” Now she says: “I recognise people desperately want us to be better. I have heard that loud and clear.” So not until she can demonstrate that the party is more autonomous, that its MSPs are more representative and that it has vibrant policies, is she willing to start asking for people’s votes.
Dugdale doesn’t believe she’ll be ditched if, as predicted, Labour gets another thrashing next year. She thinks that – after six leaders in eight years – the party knows it needs stability and someone who has enough energy for the long haul. But if she’s wrong, it won’t destroy her. “If there’s an obstacle along the way, if people have had enough of me or whatever, they won’t be dragging me out by my feet,” she says. “I’ll just go and do something else. Does that sound arrogant?” «