It’s weird, after a decade of ignoring my children’s entreaties to come watch I’m A Celebrity, to find myself lodged amongst them on a sofa squealing at the efforts of someone called Toff to digest a pig’s brain. But 2017 has been, by common consent, the weirdest of years and, right or wrong, former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale is one of our own; thus, along with many others, I have put my anger at the world on hold and surrendered to the politics of sweetbreads and circuses.
Having endured the three-day phoney war, and seen Dugdale arrive in a blitzkreig of painful puns, I find myself caught between two competing impulses, one charitable, one malign. The first drives me to root for an underdog who has been shoddily treated; the second insists that, if she is going to humiliate herself on a grand scale, I ought to be on hand to witness it, tweet about it and, if possible, re-enact it with the aid of props.
The early shots of her raking fruitlessly through fish guts suggest humiliation is the more likely outcome, but long-time fans of the show tell me it’s possible to go from zero to hero within the space of a day, so there’s still time for her to rise phoenix-like from the rain-sodden ashes.
Conflicted is how I’ve felt ever since the news leaked out about Dugdale’s decision to ditch her MSP duties and enter the jungle. Though a Zero F***s Given attitude is not necessarily a quality one would look for in an elected representative, I have a sneaking admiration for the way she wittingly or unwittingly upstaged the Labour leadership election. Having taken on a job nobody else wanted – and got little in the way of thanks – who could blame her for engaging in a light trolling?
Seeing the po-faced party bros, some of whom had undermined her leadership, rising to her bait was hilarious; even as her successor Richard Leonard was pontificating about party unity, her act of rebellion was exposing the splenetic backbiting in its midst. It was like they were straight men setting up the “nest of viper” jokes for the Geordie Chuckle Brothers.
If this seems a bit harsh, consider the snide piece written by former Labour adviser Paul Sinclair in the Mail on Sunday. Sinclair talked about Dugdale’s “dead-eyed smile” and fixated on her relationship with SNP MSP Jenny Gilruth, to the point where it became obvious that what he really cared about was not the abandonment of Dugdale’s constituents, but the fact she was sleeping with the enemy.
No wonder so many members of the usually cynical Twitterati rallied behind the #TeamKez banner. There is nothing like a dollop of casual misogyny to make hackles rise; for the SNP-minded, Labour’s obvious discomfort and the whiff of a possible defection was an added bonus.
Beyond the schadenfreude, though, I do doubt the wisdom of Dugdale’s conduct. It is one thing for her to stick her middle finger up at her erstwhile allies and quite another to stick it up at the voters. So she needs to be sure that what she is doing either serves their needs or some greater good to which their needs can be justifiably subverted. Yet so far she has given no convincing account of what she hopes to achieve.
She has promised to donate her salary for the three weeks to the Rock Trust, a charity that helps prevent homelessness among young people, as well as an unspecified proportion of her I’m A Celebrity fee, but given that fee is likely to be upwards of £25,000, she will surely end up quids-in. Meanwhile, the release of cheesy merchandise, such as Team Kez T-shirts, heightens the impression that this is a commercial enterprise. Perhaps Dugdale is worrying about the prospects of losing the defamation case being brought against her by pro-independence blogger Stuart Campbell – aka Wings over Scotland – but if that’s what it’s for, then she should be upfront about it.
Nor am I convinced by her claim that she will use the platform to promote Labour values. I’m no connoisseur, but I don’t think debates on inequality have been a key feature of previous series; their vibe has been more Lord Of The Flies than The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The experience of other politicians does not bode well either. Celebrity Big Brother turned George Galloway from the pugilist who called US senators “lickspittles” to the cat who lapped up milk from Rula Lenska’s hands.
Nadine Dorries screamed to be let out after four minutes of her first bushtucker trial, and was voted off soon afterwards Last week, Dorries further undermined Dugdale’s credibility by leaping to her defence. She said I’m A Celebrity helped politicians show they were “human” (as if Brexit wasn’t already proof of their capacity to err) and free themselves from the media narrative. Well, maybe, but only to replace it with an equally unpalatable ITV narrative. Or do we think Dugdale would have chosen to be photographed in a glass box with Sickola Sturgeon emblazoned across the top?
Such flippant wordplay may not do real political damage, but the suggestion Lothian voters can manage perfectly well without Dugdale undermines the role of list MSPs. If the constituents won’t miss her because there are six others they can turn to, then what’s the point of having so many? Could it be that list MSPs are – whisper it – dispensable?
I don’t want to be too strident about this. I have no truck with people who scream about the iniquity of jetting off to Australia when people are struggling on universal credit; or imply that having cockroaches poured on your head is akin to spitting in the faces of the poor. Dugdale has done plenty of campaigning in her time; enough to earn herself a bit of slack on this.
Only those who have never outgrown campus politics believe people cannot simultaneously care about what is happening in Syria or Zimbabwe and chortle along with Ant and Dec’s lame jokes. Lots of people, including some of her constituents, will have suffered an annus horribilis, and if watching someone consume a horribilis anus buys them an hour’s relief from the dreichness of their lives, then it is of more value than the average party political broadcast.
Yet, for all I remain #TeamKez, I cannot see how this can end well for her, especially as she insists she wants to stay at Holyrood. On November 16, she was proclaimed Debater of the Year for her powerful speech on the Rape Clause: a serious politician being rewarded for serious work.
A week later, she was grovelling on her hands and knees, the butt of communal mockery. Having lost the first task, she had to grovel some more to appease her disaffected camp-mates; but not as much as she’ll have to grovel if she wants to win back the support of her Labour colleagues – and voters – on her return.