Kezia Dugdale is under no illusions about the scale of her task in leading Labour’s revival in Scotland. With tricky elections and an EU referendum to navigate, she talks to Mary Riddell about what it’s like to have the toughest job in politics.
Hanging on Kezia Dugdale’s office wall is a stencilled portrait of Barack Obama. The poster, which came to symbolise the outgoing president’s first victory, is emblazoned with a single word: Hope. For Dugdale, who worked to mobilise Scots behind Obama in 2008, the caption has a particular resonance. Once again, this time in less auspicious circumstances, she must cling to hope.
When Dugdale stood as the leader of a pulverized Scottish Labour party, she did so with no illusions. “It’s said that I have the toughest job in politics. That’s closely followed by people tilting their heads and asking me if I’m OK. That really amuses me. I had a choice whether to step up and do this job, and I made that choice in the midst of our worst general election defeat ever. I wasn’t going into this with my eyes closed.” Almost a year on, the scale of her party’s rout is still startling. The SNP won 56 constituencies out of 59 in Scotland, gaining 50, while Labour lost 40 seats and the scalps of several of its Westminster grandees, including the then Scottish leader, Jim Murphy. Dugdale, the former deputy who grasped the most lethal of poisoned chalices, described the task that faced her as “Mission Impossible.” Reminded of that epithet, she replies: “But I said that Mission Impossible has a happy ending.”
Whether or not that optimism is ultimately justified, it seems certain that the May elections to the Scottish parliament will supply no benign conclusion. All polls show that Nicola Sturgeon’s party is on course for a handsome victory, and some suggest that Labour could be humiliatingly beaten by the Tories into third place.
Labour’s prospects in its one-time heartland are grim enough to daunt the most seasoned of leaders, let alone a newcomer of 34 who came so late to politics that she did not vote until she was 23, shortly after joining the party she now leads. If Dugdale is rattled, she gives little sign of it. We meet in a recess week at a Holyrood Parliament whose deserted corridors could stand as a metaphor for a vanished party.
Dugdale, no doubt wisely, has excised all thought of quick revival. “I have a very clear plan, and as long as I stick to [its] principles, then it’s relatively easy to make the decisions I need to take for the long-term future of the party.” Though she never says so, a culture of low expectations may benefit her. Whatever Kezia Dugdale has to offer does not include the illusion of short-term marvels.
“I was very loyal to Jim [Murphy]. He was a good friend, and I guess he did step up thinking he could come in and miraculously turn things round. I supported him, and he gave it everything – and it didn’t work. I’m not going to repeat the same strategy [or] scream into the faces of angry people. That approach has been exhausted. We tried it, and it didn’t work.
“Every decision I make isn’t taken with May in mind. It’s [based on] the long-term future of the party. That doesn’t mean I’ve written off May. I’m going to give it everything we’ve got. But my priority is not polling day but the months after.” As she recently pointed out to Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet (who were said to have been highly impressed by her performance), annihilation in the coming election is an English myth. “There’s [an element of] proportional representation, so we could have a very, very bad election and still have dozens of MSPs. I really haven’t put a metric or a number of seats as a measure of success.”
Others are less reticent, predicting that Labour will lose all 15 of its constituency seats, leaving it reliant on the 25 seats provided by a top-up list. Whatever happens, Dugdale – the sixth leader of her party in eight years – is adamant that she is going nowhere. “When I went for the job, one of my concerns was that I was just being asked to hold the coats until May, and then there would be another leadership contest. I told my supporters then I would only do it for the long haul. So 20 of the colleagues sent a letter [confirming the job would last for] five years.”
Despite the promise of durability, even natural allies worry that Scottish Labour is now engaged in a form of necro-politics offering little prospect of resurrection. Dugdale, who accepts no such fate, put down a bold and early marker by promising to use devolved powers to add 1p to all the main rates of Scottish income tax.
In the four decades since Denis Healey raised the basic rate of tax from 33 to 35 pence, no Labour chancellor has wished or dared to emulate his gamble. Analysts were agreed that Dugdale’s proposed hike, designed to raise £475 million to offset cuts to public services, would be generally progressive, with all taxpayers earning less than £20,000 receiving £100 compensation. The question was whether voters would buy it. Early indications are that Scots favour Dugdale’s fiscal candour, with one Survation poll for the Daily Record suggesting that 42 per cent of voters support the move, against 31 per cent who are opposed. For Dugdale, such findings are the vindication of a lonely decision. “I took a week over Christmas to think about this. I had [commissioned] no polls or focus groups. I knew it would be huge, and I had to weigh up the consequences. I believe in it. It’s what my politics are. As a young leader with a strong mandate, I knew I could take the party in that direction. I just had to be sure the right people would follow me.”
Where Dugdale alludes to her youth, others prefer to stress the untested nature of a leader who once referred to herself as “an accidental politician.” The charge of inexperience is the one topic that reduces her to exasperation. “What can I do about it? It’s stating the bleeding obvious. How much more experience do you want me to have? You can’t do this job at my age and arrive with 30 years’ experience. I have a huge mandate – bigger than Jeremy Corbyn’s … since I got 70 per cent of the vote.
“So the party believes I can do it. I did take my time over standing because I wanted to be sure I wasn’t just flattered. I wanted to be sure that if I became leader, I would know what to with [the job]. I have that plan and that sense of purpose. So what would decades of experience add to that?”
It seems possible that her cleanskin status is an advantage. Where battle-scarred veterans settle for grubby deals, she is uncompromising about her agenda for a fairer country. Nor is she in thrall to Labour’s vanquished Scottish titans. With the single exception of Alistair Darling and his wife Maggie, whom she counts as friends, she has no contact with any former grandees.
“I don’t have relationships with Gordon Brown or [people like] Douglas Alexander. Of course I’ve met them and shared platforms with them, but I don’t pick up the phone to those figures, and I would be most unlikely to do so in any moment of crisis. I’m acutely aware that I have a lot to prove as a young female. The minute it looks like I’ve phoned the big boys to help, I’m in trouble. It’s not arrogance on my part. I’d lose credibility.”
Hers is a life seemingly without much hinterland. “Some sacrifices have been made, but they’re hardly huge. I can’t do what other people my age do – such as go to a nice bar midweek and drink a bottle of wine with friends.” Instead she goes back to her flat near Holyrood late in the evening and watches a box set. She supports Hibernian, likes the Stereophonics, and has never until now discussed her private life.
“I have a female partner. I don’t talk about it very much because I don’t feel I need to. And there’s something too about how meteoric my career has been. I am generally calm, almost serene. I don’t get easily stressed or battered. But I need a bit of stability to do that, and that means my private life is my private life. That’s the thing I just have to have that nobody gets to touch, and that gives me the strength to be calm elsewhere.”
Dugdale’s equanimity and self-reliance may stem, in part, from her background. The daughter of a head teacher and a local government officer, she read law at Aberdeen University and subsequently worked as a waitress, spent time on the dole and became a student welfare officer before getting a post as an aide to a Labour MSP.
According to Dudgale, her parents were so startled by her entry into politics that they “sometimes look at me like a zoo exhibit.” Her father, Jeff, a one-time Tory who became an ardent supporter of the SNP, has called the bond between Scotland and England “a zombie union” and chastised his daughter on Twitter. “My dad’s line would be: ‘I’m so incredibly proud of you, but you’re wrong’”, she says, pointing out that their divisions are emblematic of wider divisions. “The referendum was scarring. Relationships, families and communities have been affected by it.”
With the EU referendum approaching, Scottish rifts are being prised open yet again. From the right, Dugdale is under challenge from the Tory leader, Ruth Davidson. “I just don’t buy that the Tories are going to come second [in the May elections]. Their core message seems to be that you can only trust the Tories with the Union, but that trust was broken with [the introduction of] EVEL [English Votes for English Laws].”
Dugdale’s more pressing threat comes from a rampant SNP. As Nicola Sturgeon has made clear, if Scotland were to back EU membership – an outcome which looks certain – while the UK as whole voted for Brexit, then another independence referendum might be inevitable. Were that to happen, then would Dugdale do all she could to hold the Union together, or might she campaign to stay in the EU and so protect the advantages that membership brings to Scotland?
“I just don’t see an issue with that. You can argue for two unions at the same time.” But not, I suggest, if the referendum is lost and Scotland wishes independently to rejoin the EU. “Yes … complicated. I see tremendous benefits from the EU to Scotland, so I would do whatever I could to preserve and promote that. The same argument applies to the UK. I would very much like both those unions to stay.” But would her first loyalty be keeping the UK together?
“I’ve never contemplated that. I really wouldn’t like to choose, because what I want to do is the best possible thing for Scotland. [I would be] putting Scotland first,” she says, pointing out that some have argued that a solo Scottish reentry to the EU might prove too difficult. But if such claims (decried by Sturgeon as “nonsense”) proved unfounded, might Dugdale argue, for Scotland’s sake, against the UK Union? “Possibly. It’s not inconceivable,” she says, so offering an unprecedented hint that the Union might not long survive a vote for Brexit.
Critical though she is of Sturgeon, Dugdale has also professed respect for the most seasoned of Scotland’s triumvirate of female leaders. “Absolutely. How could you not? Women owe it to other women to say: ‘Look at that. Isn’t it fabulous?’ It would be completely ridiculous if I wasn’t to recognise how talented she is.”
Aside from the hostile sparring ground of the Scottish equivalent of PMQs, the two women rarely meet. “But when I was a Labour researcher and she was health minister, we did cross paths more regularly, in the canteen. She was very, very kind to me then and encouraged me a lot.”
Neither admiration nor nostalgia has blunted Dugdale’s criticisms of the first minister. “If Nicola Sturgeon is really on the left, as she says she is and I believe she is, she’s going to have to do some pretty bold, radical, difficult things. If she fails to do that, I fear that will be the moment she will be found out. She’s spent the last eight years kicking the can down the road. None of the big things that need to happen have happened yet. I find that really disappointing and disheartening, because what is power for if not for that?”
Dugdale does not need reminding that, on both sides of the border, Labour has rarely seemed more estranged from power. She denies that she has ever sounded scathing of Corbyn, claiming that questioning whether he wants to become prime minister was “perfectly rational”. What is her answer now? “I’ve got to know him a whole lot better, and I really, really like him. He’s incredibly affable and principled – someone who is desperately trying to get the party to go in his direction. I’ll be completely and utterly loyal to him because I would expect the same loyalty. And yes, he does want to be PM. He wants to change the country.”
Corbyn (and his opponents within Labour) could do worse than note Dudgale’s example of how to take the heat out of one of the key issues dividing the Labour party. A multilateralist, she bowed gracefully to a vote by Scottish party members opposing the renewal of Trident in Scotland. “We had an incredibly healthy, democratic experience at the party conference [debate], and the party is much better for it.”
Policy decisions, as Dugdale knows, can only take her so far. The politics of identity and emotion sweeping Europe have played a defining role in Scotland’s destiny. “The biggest mistake people make is thinking Scottish politics are rational and that any SNP argument can be debunked by facts. We’ve tried that for nine years.”
Thus the charge that a crashing oil price has destroyed the SNP economic prospectus has little traction? “Exactly. There has to be a mention every now and then, but it takes people back to the referendum. So we have to talk about how about emotion and how things feel. Identity politics doesn’t need to be about nationalism. It can be about who we think we are as Scots.”
The perception, to many erstwhile Labour voters, was that the Scots were the pawns of a Westminster elite who manipulated the Scottish referendum to their own ends. Dugdale has been at pains to dispel that curse. “One of the first things I had to do was to have very clear autonomy from the UK party. I am the leader of the Scottish Labour party. All these accusations of a branch office are completely dissipated. Nobody’s tried to chuck that at me for months now, because they know fine well that it’s not true. I have to stand first and foremost for Scotland.”
Whether that independence will be enough to sustain her and her beleaguered party in the hard months and years ahead is unknowable. What seems beyond doubt is that Kezia Dugdale, more impressive than many dared to imagine, does not lack what her icon, Barack Obama, would call the audacity of hope.