Tom Peterkin: Kezia's journey from jungle to political wilderness

Ex-Labour leader Kezia Dugdale's brush with celebrity contrasts with Ruth Davidson's upward political path, writes Tom Peterkin.

Former Labour leader Kezia Dugdale faced questions after arriving home in Scotland. Picture: SWNS
Former Labour leader Kezia Dugdale faced questions after arriving home in Scotland. Picture: SWNS

When the sun set on her Australian adventure and she embarked on her long flight back from the jungle, Kezia Dugdale could have been forgiven for pondering the curious alignment of the stars.

A mere seven months ago, she was basking in a General Election result that saw Scottish Labour surpass expectations.

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Under her leadership, the party had returned seven seats north of the border. Although nowhere near the kind of support once enjoyed by Labour in Scotland, it was an encouraging result given the previous UK poll had delivered just one Scottish seat.

Ms Dugdale’s position in the triumvirate of female leaders who bestrode the Scottish Parliament seemed assured.

Alongside Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and Ruth Davidson of the Scottish Tories, Ms Dugdale symbolised a new progressive politics and if the ascension of her star was not exactly rocket-fuelled, it was at least shining brightly.

Since then a few things have changed.

Ms Sturgeon remains First Minister for Scotland but she no longer commands the adulation that saw her address rock concert-style rallies of independence supporters. But perhaps most the most notable observation of recent weeks is the way that Ms Dugdale’s star has waned while Ms Davidson’s has waxed.

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As Ms Dugdale made a tricky return to Holyrood yesterday, it was difficult not to mull over the contrasting fortunes of the two politicians, who, at first glance, appeared to have much in common aside from their political allegiances.

Both had political leadership thrust upon them a little earlier than they might have expected. In Ms Davidson’s case, she found herself leading the Scottish Tories rather than the more obvious heir apparent, Murdo Fraser.

Mr Fraser’s fate was sealed when the party rank-and-file rejected his proposal to address years of almost terminal decline by completely rebranding the party.

Ms Dugdale was persuaded to stand against Ken Macintosh at a particularly difficult time for Scottish Labour following Jim Murphy’s resignation amid the electoral humiliation of the 2015 General Election.

Both are strong role models for the LGBTI community and personify the fact that a politician’s sexuality should simply not be issue when it comes to reaching for the top.

Both are personable politicians who are accomplished media performers and both have proved passionate debaters in the Holyrood chamber.

So how come Ms Dugdale’s political career has been reduced to an early exit from “I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here” and a written warning from her successor, while Ms Davidson is being touted as a future Prime Minister? Much must come down to the relative resilience and leadership abilities of the individuals concerned. But some explanation can also be found in how their respective parties have reacted to having Ms Dugdale and Ms Davidson at their helms.

Contrary to popular expectation, Tory traditionalists seem not have had any problem embracing a “lesbian kick-boxer”. Ms Davidson has won round Conservative voters with aplomb.

In this task she has been helped by the binary nature of Scottish constitutional politics. Given the strength of her party’s bond with the United Kingdom, Ms Davidson’s firm anti-independence stance has played well and cemented her position as Tory darling.

As the anti-independence vote flocked to the Tories in May this year, Ms Davidson found herself at the head of a party with 13 MPs that had claimed the scalps of Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson.

The Scottish Conservative revival contrasted with Theresa May’s dismal election which produced the hung parliament, leaving Ms Davidson’s 13 MPs as hugely important power brokers at Westminster.

Given the leadership vacuum at the heart of the UK Tories, it is understandable that people should sit up and take notice when Ms Davidson signals – as she did this week – that she will consider her Westminster options should the Scottish Tories fail to win the 2021 Scottish elections.

In contrast, the independence issue has been more difficult for Ms Dugdale and Labour. True, Labour has benefited from the anti-independence tactical vote in constituencies like Edinburgh South. But the drift of Labour supporters to the SNP during and after the 2014 referendum left Labour in an unenviable position on the constitution. Admittedly this was not helped by suggestions of ambiguity when it came to Ms Dugdale’s own commitment towards maintaining the Union.

But most problematic for Ms Dugdale has been the constant suggestions that she was being undermined by an increasingly influential Corbynista wing of the party.

That is what Ms Dugdale blamed for driving her out of the top job. Quite why she thought her next career move would be to Australia to take part in a reality show is less easily explicable. Perhaps she thought the snakes in the jungle would make a pleasant change from dealing with her Labour colleagues. But, despite all the warm words about using the show to spread the Labour message, it is difficult to see how her bizarre decision to leave parliament for a few weeks to down smoothies made of bull’s penis and ostrich and pig’s anus will boost her credibility. She may have enhanced her profile, but she has done little for her reputation.