Interview: Kezia Dugdale on federalism and losing a friend

Written by Kate Shannon on 24 February 2017 in Inside Politics

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale speaks to Holyrood ahead of her party's conference in Perth

Kezia Dugdale - David Anderson/Holyrood

When Holyrood meets Kezia Dugdale, the Scottish Labour leader has had a tough few weeks following the death and subsequent funeral of her good friend, Gordon Aikman.

Aikman, a former Labour staffer, was just 29 and working as director of research for Better Together when he was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) in 2014.

He formed the Gordon’s Fightback campaign in the following months and successfully lobbied First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to double the number of MND nurses and fund them through the NHS, as well as raising more than £500,000 for research.


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Tributes paid to MND campaigner Gordon Aikman who has died at 31


He received a British Empire Medal in the Queen's 2015 Birthday Honours and an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Edinburgh in the same year for his work to transform care for people with MND and efforts to find a cure.

He passed away on 3 February and Dudgale said she was “utterly bereft”.

"I have lost a best friend and the world has lost a man who made it a better place,” she said in a statement following the announcement.

Adding: "I will miss Gordon's smile, his laugh, his energy, his brilliant dance moves and terrible singing voice, and his positive outlook on life despite the hand he was dealt towards the end. I will miss his advice and I will miss campaigning with him to advance the causes dear to us. But most of all, I will miss just spending time with my friend.

"All of us in the Labour Party will be forever grateful for his commitment to our movement, particularly during his time working in the Scottish Parliament and his pivotal role in the Better Together campaign. His death will be mourned by all those who had the pleasure to work alongside him.”

Losing a close friend in these circumstances would be difficult enough but how did the notoriously private Dugdale, who has almost always shunned talking about her personal life, cope with having her grief picked over in the public eye?

She tells Holyrood: “In that moment of grief, you lose your ability to be rational for a while. I was in the building here when I found out that Gordon had died, I was about to speak at our group meeting when Joe [Pike, Aikman’s husband] phoned me.

“After that there was no way I could speak to that meeting, I had to go home and I spent most of that night in shock. I wasn’t tearful at that point because I couldn’t quite believe it. I didn’t get really upset until the next morning when I turned on GMS and he was speaking at the time I turned it on, they were playing a clip from his documentary and it knocked me for six.

“At that point, I was really upset but then the phone started to ring with people asking me to go on the radio and TV to talk about it. At that moment, when I was so upset, you don’t think you are capable of making a rational decision. When your emotions are in flux, it is very difficult to operate in the public eye. However, I knew from speaking to Joe that Gordon had made it very clear that people were to talk about his life and however difficult it was for me, it was what he wanted so I just had to get on and do it.

“It is tough but the bottom line is I think it is an utter privilege to be in public life and do the job I do. There’s a price for that honour and that’s foregoing a little bit of your privacy.”

Just a few short weeks later, Dudgale was back in the public eye, speaking about the future of the party both she is and Aikman was, passionate about. She gave a speech at University College London where she discussed her vision for a federal UK. During this speech, she announced plans to present a motion at conference for a People’s Constitutional Convention which she will ask delegates to support.

She tells Holyrood: “If I reflect back on the 2016 election campaign, my first significant election campaign as leader, what I wanted to do was to try and make that election campaign about something other than the constitution.

“I felt we had settled the constitutional question with the referendum and I felt that Scotland needed to have a conversation about the future of our public services, to talk about schools, care for our elderly, about tax and the idea that if we want high quality, universal services then we have to talk about how we would pay for them.

“At the beginning of 2016 we were succeeding in changing the conversations we were having as a country, then with about six or seven weeks to go before the Scottish Parliament election, a switch went on and we went back to discussing the constitution. The lesson I took from that was that the constitutional question isn’t going away and the Labour Party has to have something to say about it.

“I have always believed in a federal solution for the UK. At conference, I’m going to ask my party to back that in a motion which would lead a Scottish Labour Party advocating federalism across the whole of the UK.

“Why does that matter? It is about reflecting what the vast majority of people across the UK want, which is a strong Scottish Parliament in the UK and with as close a relationship with Europe as it can possibly have. I believe passionately in the United Kingdom, the country has reaffirmed its commitment to that.

“However, just because I’m pro the UK, doesn’t mean I’m pro the status quo. Brexit forces on us a new debate about powers.

"There are powers coming back from Brussels and the question is where do they go? For example, take maternity rights and paternity rights, I’d like them to come to Edinburgh but if they come to Edinburgh on their own, there is very little we can do with them. If we want to be ambitious and do radical, progressive things with these powers, we actually need more powers from Westminster to come to the Scottish Parliament.

“I came into politics to tackle poverty and inequality and it’s been a great frustration for me that I’ve spent a lot of my political life talking about the constitution, rather than talking about the means by which we can tackle this poverty and inequality.”

Creating a new vision for Scottish Labour is doubly important in the months leading up to the local government elections which are due to take place in May. A recent poll suggested support for Scottish Labour has more than halved since the last council elections in 2012.

The Panelbase poll of 1,028 voters found 14 per cent of those who were likely to vote planned to give their first preference to Labour when “don’t knows” are excluded. Support for the SNP was at 47 per cent, the Scottish Conservatives were on 26 per cent, the Liberal Democrats 5 per cent, the Greens 4 per cent and Ukip 3 per cent.

However, Dugdale is not shocked by these figures.

“The polls being bad for the Labour Party isn’t news, it’s been that way for some time now,” she said.

She added: “I said clearly when I became leader that the problems we faced hadn’t happened overnight and they wouldn’t be fixed overnight. I’ve got a clear vision and a plan for what I want to try and do as leader, which is to try and reform the party.

“All the decisions I make are rooted in that. The reality is that Labour councils are the last thing that stands between the SNP and Tory cuts and the people. There’s a strong message that our councillors and activists can take out around the country, that local government can be used as a barrier against the worst of austerity.

“I’m immensely proud of some of the things I’ve watched Labour councils do across the country. There are really ambitious, news ways of thinking about how to deliver the very best public services. It is Labour councils which are innovating and doing things differently all the time but I believe that if they get the chance to tell their own stories, not just about what they’ve done but what they plan, we’ll do very well.”

With a number of veteran Labour councillors standing down, many of whom were also council leaders, is Dugdale concerned that a lot of talent is being lost?

She said: “It is possible that we will have more candidates in this local government election than we’ve ever had before, we’re certainly close to it. It is very important to me to bring on a new generation of talent in the party, that’s not just about youth, it’s about people from all walks of life who might be getting involved in politics for the first time.

“I’ve introduced lots of new schemes and programmes behind the scenes to try and encourage and develop that. We are bringing on a new generation of people, not just to stand as candidates but behind the schemes. Many of those people will be standing in these elections and I’m proud of that. I’m sorry to lose some great figures but I’m also proud of the fact that they’re moving on to do new and different things. These are people who have given a huge chunk of their lives to public services and they should be commended for that.”

The party announced its vision for councils in January, and Dugdale said that respect for local government is first and foremost behind the plans in the face of “the most centralising Scottish Government we’ve ever seen”.

She said: “There’s a fundamental belief in local communities having the powers to take decisions, make investments and have policies best suited to their own circumstances. That’s why that document was a vision for local government, rather than a manifesto.

"Each Labour administration or group across the country put forward their own manifestos about what they will do locally, however, as they’re all standing on a Labour platform, you’d expect there to be a common thread, which is what the vision is. It is a clear direction of travel in order to close the attainment gap, equally, when it comes to social care, [we are focusing on] how we can ensure our elderly people can live in their own homes with the dignity and respect they deserve.

“If you look at Police Scotland, we have a national police force that has led to having armed officers on the streets of Brora; it makes no sense. If you take a step back, years ago, when I was doing the youth employment brief under Johann Lamont’s leadership, I was advocating the decentralising of things like the skills agencies.

“I thought Skills Development Scotland (SDS) should be broken up and the powers given to local authorities so that they could combine those powers with better relationships with business, colleges, economic development groups and structures to try and devise systems within local communities which could create opportunities for young people linked to the local economies.

“Now we’re at the point in the Scottish Parliament where you have the Scottish Government reforming SDS and changing the nature of Scottish Enterprise, looking at the Scottish Funding Council but their ambition is not to devolve them down but to smash them all together and create one new agency which will do it for the whole of Scotland. It’s the wrong approach. The Labour Party believes fundamentally in devolution but that’s never just about moving powers from one parliament to another, it’s from parliaments to communities and from communities to people.”

With many new Labour candidates standing for election in May, what advice does Dugdale give to those who might be contemplating a career in politics?

She said: “I often speak to people who are engaged in student politics or taking their first steps into political debate in any form. The first piece of advice which comes to mind is to encourage people to pick two or three things they care about and no more than that.

“If I look back on the amount of time I’ve watched other politicians operate, I used to see a lot of people being busy doing a lot of things but I was never convinced they were making a lot of progress. I’d say try to understand why you feel how you feel and believe what you do but also take the time to understand the views of those who you disagree with and anticipate their arguments to get to the bottom of that.”

Dugdale cites Lord Foulkes, who she worked for until her election in 2011, as her own political mentor. Speaking about what she learned from him, she said: “He’s an incredibly generous, kind and gentle man and he taught me the power of that in politics and why it’s often missing. Another practical thing I learned was about how it’s possible to be both loyal and radical.

“If you look at his record as a politician, he was never a rebel, he was always very loyal to the leader of the day but at the same time in his political life, he did radical things. For example he was the first person in 1982 to try and ban smoking in public places, he was the first person in 1983 to try introduce a law to ban discrimination on the grounds of age.”

And for Dugdale, in a climate of “post-truth politics”, facts still matter.

“I wouldn’t go into First Minister’s Questions asking about a topic if I didn’t fully understand it. I like to make sure I’ve got as detailed an understanding of the background, the numbers and the maths, as I possibly can before I go in and argue it in the chamber. Others might take a different approach to that,” she concludes.

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