Kezia Dugdale on her approach to leadership

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 30 October 2015 in Inside Politics

Interview: A year after declining to stand as Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale tells Holyrood what has changed

This time last year, Scotland had voted ‘No’ to independence and despite being on the winning side Scottish Labour found itself, yet again, in the wrong place politically. Just a month after the referendum, Johann Lamont resigned, saying she had simply “had enough”, but in going with “immediate effect” she lobbed a grenade at Labour, accusing the UK party of treating Scotland like a “branch office”.

Some in her own party believed that Lamont hadn’t been up to the job; that she had failed to take the fight to the SNP, failed to truly modernise the party to reflect the new Scotland, and failed to attract talent.

But Lamont was just another in a long line of Scottish Labour leaders who had stepped up to the plate out of a sense of duty rather than a desire or natural ability to lead.

The resulting leadership contest immediately pitched Jim Murphy as the natural successor, despite him being an MP. 


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The other name being touted was a young MSP, Kezia Dugdale, who had only been a politician for three years. Dugdale was elected on the Lothians list in 2011 at age 29, a self-described “accidental politician” in that she didn’t expect to be elected. But despite her inexperience and perhaps indicative of the state Labour was already in, she was immediately tipped as a future leader along with another new entrant, Jenny Marra. 

Dugdale had a stratospheric rise. From having joined the party in her 20s, working in Lord George Foulkes’ office when he was elected an MSP in 2007 and then being elected herself in 2011, Lamont appointed her to the front bench as shadow minister for youth employment just seven months into her new job. Lamont then promoted her again to the shadow cabinet as secretary for education and lifelong learning in 2013.

However, in spite of pressure to stand when Lamont resigned, Dugdale made clear she would not do so. Indeed, she went further and told the Edinburgh Evening News she planned to limit herself to three terms as an MSP and would quit in her early 40s. 

But she did say she was interested in being deputy. “I’m a sidekick, not the superhero,” she quipped.

Two months later, Murphy was elected leader with Dugdale as his deputy. She was a popular choice – receiving almost 63 per cent of the vote – but with Murphy still an MP, it was his “sidekick” who had to go head-to-head with Nicola Sturgeon during the bruising weekly FMQs and, as we will later explore, sometimes having to defend policies of his that she did not believe in.

Then, Labour had 41 Scottish MPs in Westminster and 38 MSPs in Holyrood. However, it was still feeling the post-referendum effect of its toxic alliance with the Tories and was trailing badly in the polls. Murphy had five months before the general election to turn things around. He couldn’t. In May, the SNP, in a landslide victory, won all but three of the 59 Scottish seats at Westminster, leaving Labour with one. 

Murphy, along with 39 of his Labour Party colleagues, lost his seat. And despite an ill-judged attempt to hang on as leader – he narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in the immediate wake of the election – he resigned, having held the post for six months, a record even in Scottish Labour terms.

So, just eight months after suggesting she was not leadership material, Dugdale threw her hat in the ring and after a contest that pitted her against Holyrood veteran Ken Macintosh, she was duly elected leader in August this year.

Dugdale – Scottish Labour’s sixth leader in just eight years – and I conduct our interview in a room in the Scottish Parliament once reserved for the special advisers of the previous short-lived leaders and now dubbed by her and her team ‘the playroom’.

There are old Labour Party posters on one wall, a large whiteboard on another, a TV and a mini basketball net at the far end surrounded by cushions and comfy chairs. On the whiteboard, drawn in red ink, is a diagram headed by a rough oblong with ‘Renew Scottish Labour’ written on it. Three arrows branch out, ending in three circles enclosing the words ‘values’, ‘future focus’ and ‘Labour family’. These innocuous little illustrations are the three pillars of Dugdale’s strategy to renew the party. It was this strategy that convinced her she had a clear plan to become leader.

Despite her enthusiasm for it, I notice that her blueprint for change is almost apologetically squashed into the top left-hand corner of the vast whiteboard, smacking – perhaps just a little – of a lack of confidence, more a toe-in-the-water whisper than a full-on, shout-it-out loud command for the way forward.

I ask her what changed between two short leadership contests to convince her that she was now ready to take over at the helm.

“I’m not sure, really, that anything changed for me personally,” she says. “But Scottish politics changed quite fundamentally post-referendum and I think what leadership looks like, what the Labour Party needed to present itself as and what the Labour Party needs to do in terms of renewing itself from the bottom up – and I will talk to you about my strategy which is written on the wall up there so basically no one forgets it – that all changed. So in a sense, the job changed and my skills were more suited to the new job than they were in the past. 

“I don’t regret what I said in that earlier interview and that same degree of insecurity about a personal skill set and lack of steel is still there and I am still as conscious of that as I was then. But I think it’s a great strength to know your weaknesses and be prepared to address them.

“To be blunt about it, it took me four days to decide to go for it and if I remember the chronology right, I think it happened [Jim standing down] on the Friday and it wasn’t until the Tuesday that I said I would put my name forward and said I would definitely do this. For the first 36 hours of that I felt just an immense pressure to do it, you know, like it wasn’t really an act of choice but there was an expectation that I would do it. That came from calls, texts, friends, staff, colleagues, all saying, ‘you need to do this’, ‘you need to step up’, ‘you can do this’, and all that type of thing. 

“What actually gave me a degree of clarity about it was on the Monday when Ken announced he would stand and it became less of ‘you have to do it’ for me and felt more like a choice. It gave me the space to think why I was doing it. I wasn’t signing up to hold the coats, I was signing up because I believed I could do it, I wanted to do and I could do it. I came up with this plan in my head, which is now on the wall, about what I wanted to do and I just felt ‘I am going for this’.”

I ask Dugdale what her hesitation was about before; was it gender, age, inexperience, a combination of those things? “I think gender definitely played a part for the reasons you have outlined – thinking you are not good enough and so on – but there was also a sense that everything in my political career has happened way faster than if you had asked me to step it out in the way I would have liked it to happen, and this felt the same. My whole political career seems to have been on fast forward and this felt the same.”

I say to her that I find it odd that she has described herself as an “accidental politician”. After all, you don’t get elected without first putting your name forward. 

“It jars with some people,” she acknowledges. “But it was probably a bit of a blunt tool to describe what I was trying to articulate. What I meant was, of course I wanted to be in elected politics otherwise I wouldn’t have put my name forward, which is why I can see it would jar, but I didn’t expect it to happen given the context of when I put my name forward.

"At that time in 2010, the Labour Party was ahead of the SNP in the polls, there was an expectation that Iain Gray would be First Minister and we would make gains in constituency seats. But that slipped away and it was only in the final two weeks of the 2011 campaign that we were conscious we would have a really, really bad election and even on polling day, my friends and colleagues were saying, quite literally, ‘we will piss ourselves if you get elected’… my friends aren’t shy in offering blunt truth about things like that. 

“The reality was, I was working as an organiser for the Labour Party and was responsible for two key seats: one was held by the Labour Party and one was one we wanted to gain. We lost both of them and I got elected. I was expecting us to win those seats and wake up with a redundancy package from George’s office and have three months to work out what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and instead I was an MSP.

“Do I regret it? No. I regret us not winning the election but nothing could be done about that.

“My mission now is to renew the Scottish Labour Party and there are three pillars of work to that and every member of staff and every MSP knows about this, and it is drilled into everyone. It is in their work programme and any bit of work we commission has an assigned pillar to it which asks which one of the three pillars is this thing I am asking you to do fit under.”

We turn to look at the diagram on the whiteboard. “The first one is the values one: renewing the values of the Labour Party, making it very clear what we are about, who we stand for, who we are and what we stand for, hence the shift in the shadow cabinet to try and break down some of those barriers between policy portfolios.

“The second one on the future focus: that’s the one about the candidates and bringing forward new candidates for 2016 and with an eye to 2017 and elections after that, and the policy platform of the party and its autonomy all fit into that.

“The third one is the Labour family and our relationship with the trade unions and what it means to be a Labour Party member, which has to be more than electing the leader, and about bringing back a sense of democratic engagement, political education and reforming how our CLPs work.”

I’m not sure what any of that really means in practice, so I repeat a question I have been asking ever since Murphy told me that Scottish Labour lost the 2007 and 2011 elections because the electorate couldn’t answer the question ‘what does Labour stand for?’ Can she?

“I think so. I’ll have a go. It stands for people... for realising the potential of people and using the power of government to help do that.” That sounds to me like something that could sit comfortably on a fridge magnet. But what does it actually mean?

“What does that look like in practice? Well, it is why I have put such a great emphasis on educational inequality because I think inequality holds our entire country back.”

Surely every politician, no matter what party, would like to tackle inequality?

“No, I don’t think so because in order to realise that you have to be ambitious about progress and serious about reform. My criticism of the SNP is that they are not doing that. It’s not entirely their fault because we are in an annual cycle of elections right now so it’s difficult to focus on the long term and to make radical reform. But, for instance, we are still throwing money at primary healthcare in this country and expecting to see massive results at the end of that. Look at the Scandinavian countries, they have taken a completely different approach and in Finland they are working on the basis that one in four people will live to 100 so they are investing in keeping people at home longer, to keep them healthier for longer and keep them away from primary care altogether.

"I think we would do well to have that kind of public debate in this country but we are not doing it because we are living from one election to another, so to focus on the future, I need to move the Labour Party to that place and be talking about Scotland in 20 years’ time.”

And yet, every week as leader of the Labour Party, she is attacking the SNP on the targets in the here and now.

She laughs, which she does often and wholeheartedly. “I think that it is very difficult to have a complete change in mindset when you know that at FMQs you are going to be asked by people like me how you are getting on with targets x, y and z and why they are being missed but I think we could have a grown-up discussion about the Christie Commission, for example, which is a fantastic piece of work which I think is being hugely ignored. I don’t blame anyone for it, I blame everyone for it. But in Christie, we have a route map for how we can do public service reform and it is being largely ignored, or if we are doing it, it is with a tiny bit of the Scottish Government budget.”

I point out that the current SNP Government actually commissioned the Christie report which was published in 2011 and helped to inform the preventative spend agenda still followed by the SNP. It also raised many questions about the affordability of universal benefits. Given Dugdale supported Lamont as leader when she wanted to abolish them, and then also supported Murphy as leader when he wanted to retain them, what is her position now?

“Well, I think that you have to recognise that there is a general acceptance across the country that free bus travel has to stay, free prescriptions have to stay and free tuition fees are free for all and I don’t see any appetite anywhere to change that. If you are asking me what I fundamentally believe on this, and given I want to tackle inequality, then I think there is a case for progressive universalism, which is really saying, let’s talk about tax. So if you want things to stay the same but you want to have additional resources to spend on the most disadvantaged communities, then you have to look at revenue powers.”

Is the 50p tax rate going to be in her manifesto?

“The 50p tax is absolutely going to be in our manifesto.”

How much will that bring? 

“Up to £100 million. But bluntly, Mandy, it could also raise zero because of the mechanisms by which people can avoid paying tax so it is up to £100 million which we would ringfence purely for school spending. But in the case of us not raising what we hope, we also have an additional redistributive mechanism which we would use for education, which is to scrap the APD measure which would bring £250 million and we would spend that on educational inequality.”

I suggest costing policy commitments on tax raising that has a margin of error of between £0 and £100m isn’t really credible. Is there anyone actually doing the sums?

“Yes,” she smiles. “We have a guy next door doing the modelling because there is an expectation that if we put a policy like that forward then it needs to be credible and open sourced so that people need to be able to break it down. But interestingly, I was in Wales recently and met with both Carywn Jones [First Minister of Wales] and Huw Lewis [Welsh Education Minister] and I think the education policy they are developing in Wales is really interesting, reforming and really quite radical, in some ways. I said to Huw that their budget is being cut and they have all these other pressures from the NHS, which is causing them some challenges in Wales, and so on and I said to him, ‘where are you finding the money from for these other big commitments?’ and he said they would worry about that later. 

“That is a government minister in the Welsh Assembly – what matters to him is the political will to do something. I was quite impressed by both the boldness and frankness of that so what I am saying is that we could raise £100 million with the 50p tax rate but if it doesn’t, scrapping the position on APD gives us another revenue source. And if we don’t need that, it will have given us even more money to spend on tackling inequality.”

This is either a refreshingly honest approach to policy or a tad naïve. I wonder if she recognises the law of unintended consequences and that, in government, competing demands can frustrate your desire to make change. 

She sighs. “Ah, you may remember that I was quite burnt over the debate on free school meals. Everyday, someone will tweet that I am a disgrace because I voted against free school meals but there is no point in responding on Twitter in 140 characters. The truth of this is that during the passage of the Children and Young People Bill, the Labour Party put forward an amendment not to extend free school meals to everyone because the poorest were already getting it and instead to spend the money on additional childcare for vulnerable two-year-olds, so 27 per cent of two-year-olds would have got additional childcare. In terms of tackling educational inequality, that would have been a better productive use of those funds, but I was absolutely slaughtered by the children’s’ sector who believed in both things. Their response to me was that I was asking them to choose between two good competing things. I was trying to have a serious debate about allocation of limited resources and I said to them, ‘you have just panned me for trying to do something bold and so the next time you ask me to be bold I will just cross my arms and sit back and do nothing’."

Really?

She laughs. “No of course I won’t, but that is the frustration.”

Dugdale has a core belief in what she sees as fair and unfair. “Fairness does drive me and I think that is because of the way I was brought up.”

Both Dugdale’s parents were originally teachers. Her father went on to be a headteacher and her mother, latterly, went into local government administration. They split up when she was 15 while sitting her Standard Grades but that doesn’t appear to have contributed any angst. She describes it as a “happy break-up” and says they are both happily remarried. And while she says she doesn’t remember them being overtly political, they were clearly driven by a similar vein of fairness.

Her mother’s final job before retiring was as director of procurement in Dundee. Dugdale says she went from teaching in schools to building schools. Her father is a member of the SNP and a prolific tweeter, often admonishing his daughter on Twitter. Doesn’t she feel annoyed about that?

“No,” she laughs. “My dad was one of those people that travelled the entire journey of the referendum. He started off not being sure and over the two-and-a-half years went to Yes and he was so heartbroken – but also angry – after the referendum that he was motivated enough to join a political party for the first time in 40 years, so he was one of the 100,000 that joined the SNP after the referendum and a textbook case.

“Would I tell him to stop using Twitter? No, because the reverse of that would be he could tell me what to say and do and that’s not going to happen either.”

This is a rare glimpse of mettle. Dugdale expresses a range of insecurities about how she is perceived. She suspects people think she is a pushover and is unable to say ‘no’. The firmness about her dad reveals a strength that sometimes gets lost in her sunny disposition and that ubiquitous smile. I ask how she found working with someone like Murphy who is often seen as divisive and more aggressive in style to her.

“I can’t say I ever felt the aggression but I do understand why people would think that. If you want to make a comparison of me as deputy to Jim and how Jim operated and what I do now then Jim built a structure and a team which was very triangular and very presidential and structured to work for Jim. My approach is to resource that strategy on the whiteboard. Am I more collegiate? Yes, I think so.

“Jim and I got on like a house on fire but when we started our leadership, I think we had maybe spoken three times before that in our entire lives and on two of those occasions he was asking me to do something and I said ’no’. One of them was that he wanted me to do the Better Together Young People’s BBC debate and I didn’t want to share a platform with George Galloway and I refused. The other one would be voting for David Miliband. He phoned me quite early on in David’s leadership campaign because I think, as I remember, he wanted me to be actively involved and he was saying I should vote for David because this was the future and I was like ‘I’m not sure how I am going to vote’. I did end up voting for Ed but it took me a long time to get there. So two of the three times before I started working for Jim I had said ‘no’ and it was a good starting point because he knew I wasn’t a pushover. 

“I think lots of people think I am a pushover. I just get a sense that people think that because they see me in the papers all the time smiling. I just worry that people think I am fluffy and don’t have a sense of purpose of why I am here and what I am doing. I am going to address that.

“I do reflect and question whether I have done the right things, what I have learned from this or that experience, and it’s like your point about me not having a tremendous amount of experience, I am acutely aware of that and I find even now, every day I am doing something for the very first time and there are not many people in leadership positions that have to go through that. But by the very circumstance of how I got here, it is an unavoidable reality.

“And because you are in the eye of the media, your mistakes are very public. Once I did Question Time I had a howler and there was a very distinct reason why. They have a warm-up question before they start filming and the question was about drinking at football matches, which is a policy Jim had in terms of reintroduction of alcohol. I had to give the Labour line and it was quite apparent the audience didn’t believe me and so when the camera went on I had lost the audience before I had even begun. They were just thinking, there’s someone sitting on the stage saying what they think they have to say rather than what they believe. I was quite thrown by that. 

“I don’t want to give the impression that I go home and I rock on my couch questioning why I had done a certain thing, but I do spend quite a lot of time being reflective at weekends about the week past and the month past and repeatedly going back to my core strategy: are we doing enough of the right things? Is the team flowing and working? Am I a help or a hindrance in some situations? Do I need to cede more power to others? And yes, of course, I have all those conversations with myself.

“But I think I have a very strong sense of what I believe in and who I am and what I want to do and yes, there are people who want to influence me but I take that as a good thing because I am strong enough to take advice and not necessarily heed it and I listen to lots of people but I know who I am and where I am going.

“I do have some hard decisions coming around candidate selection and it’s not that I lack the confidence to take hard decisions but having not done it before, I don’t know what it takes to do it. But I am determined to do it and a lot of these decisions will come up before Christmas and that sense of steel that was perhaps missing when I did the interview with the Evening News last year will have to materialise by then.

“The adversity of the situation I am in now, in terms of where the Labour Party is and needs to get to, is, frankly, liberating. I have a mandate and a platform to be much bolder than any of my predecessors and I have to take it.”

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