Ayesha Hazarika: Whoever gets the job must take a leaf out of Kezia's playbook

As I sat down to do my regular newspaper review slot on Sky News a week ago, the presenter whispered to me and my on-screen partner Tom Newton Dunn of the Sun newspaper, 'there's some rumour going about that Kezia Dugdale may be resigning'. We looked at each other blankly. We had heard nothing. Normally where there is a big resignation like this, whispers start going round the commentators, journalists and political hacks, but this was a tightly controlled, leak-free operation mainly managed by Kezia. Her staff weren't told much in advance and she arranged all her own media logistics. I was quite impressed with that. It shows that she still had that real person feel to her instead of becoming entirely reliant on 'staff' to do the most basic of things. You would be surprised (or maybe not) at how many so-called adults become infantilised when they get some bag carriers and forget how to send an email or make a few calls, or a cup of tea.

Kezia Dugdale was perhaps too nice for what is a blood sport  especially in Scottish Labour. Picture: Lisa Ferguson
Kezia Dugdale was perhaps too nice for what is a blood sport  especially in Scottish Labour. Picture: Lisa Ferguson

I was shocked by the timing but wasn’t entirely surprised at the confirmation of the resignation, which broke while we were on air. But I was sad. I was a friend and colleague of Kezia’s and liked and admired her greatly. She and I had comedy memories of taking it in turns to play Nicola Sturgeon as we prepared Ed Miliband for the televised leaders’ debates in the 2015 general election. She was a formidable Sturgeon. Nicola – if you ever need a day off…

Kezia was bright, able, decent, kind and she stepped up when the Labour Party was at its lowest ebb. She was also remarkably free of ego or bad temperament which is not something you can say of all who preceded her. I remember her telling me she had bumped into a senior political journalist while travelling to help Ed. Most other people have briefed themselves into the story “off the record” making out they were coming to “save the day”. Not her. She was modest, supportive and collegiate. Maybe that was her problem. Maybe she was too nice for what is a blood sport – especially in Scottish Labour. She wanted her life back and good luck her. She will continue to be a doughty champion for her constituents and those who need her help the most.

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And so, Scottish Labour finds itself getting ready to print off the ballot papers once again for yet another leadership contest. We’ve had more leadership contests than Kate Moss has had fish suppers. And I think that statistic is actually true. For what it’s worth (probably not that much), here’s my advice and some thoughts.

Whoever wins will look ahead to the first period of calm without any planned elections or referendums until the Scottish elections in 2021, unless Theresa goes on an extreme walking holiday or Nicola does the mother of all U-turns. No other recent Scottish Labour leader has had that period of relative election calm for a while, so use it well. That gives them time to really do some heavy lifting and work on rebuilding the party, especially after a relatively good performance in May.

Firstly, candidates. The new leader can really put his (let’s get real) efforts into spotting and developing talent and bring them on to be strong, exciting parliamentary candidates for all tiers of elected politics in Scotland. This is a great opportunity. And I would urge them to spend time and effort on this. Gender balance and people from diverse under-represented backgrounds are important, as is selecting people who come from all walks of life and who really connect with people. Yes, of course that means trade unionists but also people from different jobs who maybe haven’t been involved with the Labour machine but who have important stories to tell and skills to offer. But above all, people with something about them – who can inspire and speak the language of everyday people. But get people in place relatively soon they can get embedded and start giving their opponents a hard time, especially in those many seats where the majorities are less that 2,000.

Secondly, policies. At a time when faith is being lost in the SNP because they have struggled on a number of key policy areas through their focus on independence, this creates a big space for Labour to create and craft a fresh, exciting and intelligent policy package. It should have the radicalism and appeal of what Labour offered in the 2017 manifesto but should also be bespoke for the needs of Scotland and the result of some deep thinking and number crunching so the sums all add up. Fairness and anti-austerity will be top priorities for the new leader, but also important issues like a forward looking industrial strategy which takes into account rapid changes in technology like Artificial Intelligence and the rise of automation; climate change and green jobs; education and skills as well as navigating Brexit. And of course, a fresh focus working with experts to support public services will be vital such as the Health and Social Care Workforce Commission which Anas Sarwar helped set up to address the shortage of staff across the sectors.

It is also time to look at the powers that Scotland actually has right now and probe whether the SNP are making full use of them and if not, put forward a plan for what a Labour First Minister would do right now. And just as we say to the SNP to stop banging on about independence, Scottish Labour must too develop a narrative which makes it clear we are a unionist party, but doesn’t define itself on that ticket alone. People want workable ideas to improve their lives, not just rhetoric about the constitution.

Thirdly, working better with the party across the whole of the UK and party democracy. Kezia did some very good work repairing bridges with the leader’s office in Westminster which were pretty much burned when she took up the reins so whoever succeeds her has some better party structure than she inherited and having an official spot on the national executive committee was a really important and necessary win for Scottish Labour. But there is still work to be done to make sure the party gets the autonomy it needs and supports it deserves.

So that’s my lot for the new leader and we will see the candidates set out their stall over the coming weeks and months. But I would also leave them on this note. Being leader of Labour in Scotland is definitely the toughest job in British politics right now. It’s lonely. No-one really helps you and everyone slags you off. And that’s just the perks. Reach out. Remember that collaboration and unity is the bedrock of parties that recover and take a leaf out of Kezia’s playbook. Be decent. And work on your Sturgeon impression.