Kezia Dugdale says new role is a ‘unique opportunity’ to ‘break away from the past’

It was the first day of her court hearing. Kezia Dugdale had sat for hours listening to the QC outlining why she should be found to have defamed a pro-independence blogger.

Kezia Dugdale.
Kezia Dugdale.

It had been a tough day - the culmination of a two-year wait since she first wrote the column in the Daily Record which had landed her with a lawsuit.

Leaving court at 4pm, a quick change of clothes and a taxi ride later she was in front a four member panel who were drilling her on why she wanted to leave behind her life as an MSP and become the first director of the John Smith Centre for Public Service.

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If there was a just one reason, perhaps it was back in that court room.

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Former Labour leader Kezia Dugdale to quit Scottish Parliament in July

But for Dugdale there were perhaps a catalogue of reasons to go.

She was 34 when she became leader of Scottish Labour, a party reeling from the massive rise in electoral support for the SNP - despite the Nationalists’ losing the 2014 independence referendum - and a resurgent Tory party, which had benefited from the unionist vote. The double whammy had seen Labour reduced to third place in Holyrood - and it was Dugdale who stepped up to try and stem the tide.

Three years on since then and she has been through more than some pack into a lifetime.

She has suffered the blow of losing a best friend in Gordon Aikman, who passed away from motor neurone disease, after his very public campaign for more resources for patients; she was publicly outed as gay by a journalist; she got engaged then split from her fiance Louise and more controversially found a new relationship with SNP MSP Jenny Gilruth; she became estranged from her father; delivered one of the most righteously furious speeches Holyrood has heard, condemning the rape clause, and ultimately resigned as leader before heading to the Australian jungle and the reality TV show I’m a Celebrity. On her return she launched the Scottish Labour pro-Remain campaign - and of course there was the defamation case brought by Stuart Campbell which kept her awake at night.

Is it surprising then, that she said that it didn’t take too long for her to decide to go for the job at the Glasgow University think tank?

“My name was recommended for the job and so I was approached by a headhunter and I had a solid two weeks to consider putting in an application. At that time it was before the Wings case, and that was what was at the forefront of my mind, being worried about that and what that would mean. But also though I was also looking forward to being beyond it - the end was almost in sight and with the end of that there was a chance for new beginnings.

“I’m a little bit of a believer in fate, that things happen for a reason and so I needed to think about it really seriously. So I did. I put together an application and started doing that by writing about what politics means to me, the challenges and potential solutions and I got really excited about it. It was a unique opportunity to do politics without the party politics bit and it just came at the right time.”

She adds: “My interview was on the opening day of the defamation hearing. I was just trying to get through it all. It was all quite overwhelming. But what I have built up over the years is a resilience that I’m quite proud of. Not that I’ve become a robot - I’m still quite an emotional actor, still trying to be a human being... I would like life to slow down just a little bit, though I will give this new role everything I’ve got.”

She says she’s been supported in her decision by her partner Jenny and her mother who, she laughs, still has hopes that one day Dugdale will become a lawyer.

“The minute Jenny and I got together we knew we had differing politics, but I think we’ve handled that well despite doing the same job in the same workplace” she says.

“I wouldn’t want to speak for her but I don’t think she’d mind me saying she tried to discourage me from doing this [resigning] because she knows how much I’ll miss it.

“She’s asked me the hard questions to make sure it was right. She wasn’t cheering me out the door saying this is a victory for the SNP - she’s been very encouraging.”

As for her mother she says “She’s delighted. She’s pleased I’m doing something that plays to my strengths. And to get a bit of peace. It’s not pleasant for your family to see some of the stories she’s seen and to have my life on the front pages - and sure enough I put myself in that situation but my mum shouldn’t have to see that, she’ll enjoy the respite from the headlines that will come with my new role.

“Though I hope there will be headlines about the work - just not my personal life. No doubt I’ll still have people asking me about Ant and Dec and Brexit though.”

There had been a suggestion that at the next Holyrood elections she would stand in Ruth Davidson’s Edinburgh constituency, and she admits that was an appealing challenge - moreso as she has taken on many housing issues from the central area of the city in recent months - but she says her “heart lies with Edinburgh Eastern where I live and with so many of the people and organisations there like the Venchie, and Craigmillar Books for Babies. So who knows what I would have done - and if the party members would have supported me to stand in either seats.”

But she will miss Holyrood and the difference being an MSP can make to people’s lives.

“I love being an MSP. As a list MSP you are often people’s last port of call rather than their first. But if they’re in serious debt or the cusp of eviction as we had last week, people do find their way to my door and having that primary responsibility to represent people in the purest sense, to advocate on their behalf, has been a real honour and I will miss that.

“That’s why I’m not going immediately because I’ve made a commitment to these people to try and help them and I will continue to do that to the last moment. Come July 15 I’ll submit formal resignation to Parliament until then still doing surgeries and taking on cases.”

She admits she might have had other thoughts if her resignation had triggered a by-election but as it doesn’t, and she’ll be replaced by a Labour MSP - Sarah Boyack, head of public affairs with the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations is next on the list - she doesn’t feel like she’s letting the side down.

“I spoke to Sarah within the last two weeks. We had a meeting to talk about house adaptations and after that concluded I let it be known to her I might stand down and she might have to think about what she would do in those circumstances, so she did know my intentions.

“I’m very sorry to do this to my staff who are phenomenal. They have been loyal for a long time and I will do my best to look after them.

“I genuinely wasn’t looking to leave but when this was presented to me it was too good an opportunity and challenge to pass by.”

In terms of her own legacy as an elected politician she points to her Debtbusters campaign from the period when she was first elected.

“I’m very proud of the early work I did around pay day lenders and high street debt as that was a really live issue at the time. You can forget now that companies like Wonga, that business model is bust - through the power of politics.

“It was a great campaign, trying to protect people who got into the worst of debt but also promoting the alternative such as credit unions.

“Life changed quite a bit when I joined the leadership first as deputy then as leader and the time and capacity too that real bread and butter campaigning disappeared and I missed that but I also had more levers at my disposal as leader that I didn’t have before to invest in the Labour family to improve relationships between the trade unions and the party, to bring on talent and invest in the next generation of potential political candidates or those behind the scenes. I hope there’s a legacy in that for the party.”

She adds: “I have a lot of party political baggage now because of being leader through four elections and one referendum and the aftermath and leaderhip contests and the clearly strongly held views I have about Brexit and where that’s clashed with people and I’ve always been honest about that and why I think that matters... but I’ve done that now and I don’t need to do it again, and this is a chance to break away from that past and renew what I came into politics for in the first place - which is to believe that it is a force for good.

“The Centre is in John Smith’s memory, this is the 25th anniversary of his death, it’s existed for a number of years now but it’s never had a full time director. It’s done a bit of research and hosted events but now it really wants to get to the crux of being a fully fledged think tank that offers real insights into what people think about politics and the political process and what needs to change.

“It will also offer paid internships to young people and people from non-traditional backgrounds to access politics and that’s been a long held passion of mine. To make sure our institutions look like the country they seek to represent, you couldn’t really draw a job for me that is better in its appeal and that’s really exciting.”