Martyn McLaughlin: Kezia’s hardest task in jungle isn’t what you think

It is said that all political careers end in failure, but Kezia Dugdale at least had the fortune to leave the frontline at a time of her own choosing. While most party leaders are forced out by scandal, mutiny, or humiliation at the ballot box, the resignation letter she issued upon stepping down as leader of Scottish Labour did not seek to attribute blame, settle scores, or apologise for past misdemeanours.

It is said that all political careers end in failure, but Kezia Dugdale at least had the fortune to leave the frontline at a time of her own choosing. While most party leaders are forced out by scandal, mutiny, or humiliation at the ballot box, the resignation letter she issued upon stepping down as leader of Scottish Labour did not seek to attribute blame, settle scores, or apologise for past misdemeanours.

It was, she declared, simply time to move on, writing eloquently of how the death in February of her friend, Gordon Aikman, the prominent motor neurone disease campaigner, had shown her how life was a precious and fleeting thing.

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The letter made explicit how Ms Dugdale had embraced a new outlook, but what was most revealing was what was left implicit; her tenure as leader, she said, had been fulfilling and yet difficult, a challenge that she had enjoyed “until now.”

The subtext of this sentence came closest to offering an explanation for her resignation, hinting at a reality seldom articulated by a political leader for fear of it being seized upon as weakness or an abdication of responsibility: it is possible to grow weary of life at a party’s helm.

Ms Dugdale is only 36 and was leader for just 24 months, but the constitutional upheaval in British politics ensured that was time enough in which to endure elections at Westminster and Holyrood as well as the rancourous EU referendum. It was a torrid schedule for any leader, but the shambolic collapse in Scottish Labour’s standing and incessant backbiting from within placed unique and insurmountable obstacles in Ms Dugdale’s way.

Her stewardship of the party was not a triumph, nor was it a disaster. The 2015 general election mauling brought her to power on the back foot, but she departed with more MPs than she started out with and - against the odds - showed it was possible to bring to heel, if not tame altogether, the various factions sowing disunity in a seemingly perpetual battle for control of her party.

Yet so too she has bequeathed Richard Leonard an institution that has fallen even further from relevance in Scottish political life, one now occupying third billing at Holyrood and struggling for credibility as an effective opposition force let alone a potential party of government.

All that blood, sweat and tears for what might generously be claimed as a score draw? It is enough to give anyone cause to reflect on their purpose and calling.

Since stepping back, Ms Dugdale has not expanded on the contents of her August letter, and until the weekend, she had no reason to. But her decision to take part in the ITV reality show, ‘I’m A Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!’, invites renewed analysis of her resignation letter and poses a question she must now confront - was she disillusioned with the leadership, or had she fallen out of love with electoral politics altogether?

Ms Dugdale has never exhibited a burning personal ambition. Following the bitter resignation of Johann Lamont, she ruled out a tilt at the top job, declaring herself to be “a sidekick, not the superhero.” She disclosed that her political life would be limited to three terms at Holyrood. “That would take me to my early 40s,” she added. “Then it’ll be time for something else.”

At a time when Ms Dugdale’s star was on an upward trajectory, such candour pointed to an unorthodox and refreshing politician, someone motivated not by gain, but outmoded notions such as loyalty. Now that she has ceded her place at the top table, yet shown no appetite to step down as an MSP, that desire to pursue “something else” has become a flaw, not a virtue.

The key issue is not, as Ms Dugdale’s critics claim, that her participation in the programme undermines her successor; signing up to feast on animal genitalia is a naive, misguided and potentially embarrassing decision, but it is Mr Leonard who has allowed to it impact on Scottish Labour’s credibility.

The issue posed the first challenge of his fledgling leadership. Instead of confronting it head on, sanctioning Ms Dugdale or even laughing off her media work as an irrelevance, he chose to refuse to answer questions on his first day in the job and declined a slot on the BBC’s Sunday Politics show. A new broom sweeps clean, it does not cower in the cupboard.

All that really matters now is Ms Dugdale’s commitment in whatever time she has left in politics. Her constituents deserve to know if her Antipodean foray is the first of several extracurricular activities she intends to embark upon before the next Scottish Parliament elections roll around in 2021.

If that is the case, and the events of recent months have cut short her plan to serve for 15 years in Holyrood, she should concede as much during her return to work interview and set a revised timetable for her departure.

Perhaps, deep down, she knew that by entering the jungle, it would set those wheels in motion. But it is time she tackled the issue head on. Resignation would not be an admission of defeat or a source of shame. It would be both honest and a valedictory act of service.

Despite her bruising experience as leader and the odious personal attacks she continues to bear, Ms Dugdale’s years of service ought to demonstrate that her adherence to Scottish Labour is not in doubt.

But she should use her time in Queensland to ask whether she might now be mistaking dedication for duty. Kangaroo appendages aside, it may be the hardest challenge she has to digest.