Kezia Dugdale: 'The Labour Party is sick'
When Kezia Dugdale announced she was stepping down from the Scottish Parliament to pursue a career away from frontline politics, it probably didn’t come as a surprise to those who had worked with her during her eight years as an MSP.
The past couple of years, since stepping down as Labour leader, have been turbulent for Dugdale, to say the least.
She was – in her own words – “sidelined” by her party, and then “dropped like a sack of potatoes” as a result of the defamation case brought against her by the Wings Over Scotland blogger, Stuart Campbell.
At times, she felt she was on the verge of losing everything she had worked for – her house, her job, her reputation – and after managing to come out the other side, she knew it was the right time to leave.
“I wasn’t actively looking for another job, I would have very happily served out this session and then stood again at the next election and then taken my fate, whatever that was,” Dugdale tells Holyrood ahead of starting her new role as director of the John Smith Centre for Public Service at Glasgow University.
“In a way, this job found me and when I saw the job and what it entails, I thought I could do that, that would be really good, and it would be a challenge because when I stopped being leader, I was totally sidelined, I was taken off my committee, I didn’t have any spokesperson role. I was just turning up to vote.
“I have a set of skills and had a contribution to make that weren’t required anymore so I just thought, I’ll go and do something else, then.”
Dugdale became leader of Scottish Labour when she was just 33 years old, after the party suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2015 general election.
Having lost his own seat, and left with just a single Labour MP in Scotland, Jim Murphy resigned, leaving Dugdale, his deputy, to pick up the pieces of the broken party.
“It was this weird feeling, where the leader’s just lost a general election, I’m deputy leader, and the whole party kind of metaphorically just turned and looked at me, this expectation that you’d rise up and do it,” recalls Dugdale.
“Of course I wanted to do it, I’m not saying I never wanted to do it, but I was 33 years old and everything I was doing, I was doing for the first time and learning on the job and leading a group of, in some instances, vastly more experienced politicians.”
But what she lacked in experience, she made up for in enthusiasm and a strong work ethic.
She had a long, difficult road ahead of her to try to turn the fortunes of Scottish Labour around, and while she didn’t have a magic wand to reverse the catastrophic situation the party found itself in, as leader, Dugdale did at least put it back on the right path.
Labour went from having just that one MP at Westminster, Ian Murray, to gaining seven seats, against expectations, and placing the party on a much more secure footing.
But then, in a move that shocked the party, Dugdale resigned as leader in 2017, just two years after taking on the job.
She said at the time the party needed a new leader with “fresh energy”, but there were many underlying reasons behind her decision, including the death of her close friend, Gordon Aikman, who died from Motor Neurone Disease, aged just 31.
“I was really unhappy,” admits Dugdale. “I lost one of my closest friends and that taught me a lot about how short and precious life is. If you’re not trying to make your life a happy one, then what are you actually doing?
“I felt like I had given everything I had, not just to the party over the two years that I was leader, but for the whole of my working life up to that point.
“I’m talking about joining the Labour Party in my early 20s, spending every night and every weekend out canvassing. I missed out on a lot of fun, a lot of things that my friends were doing that were just normal, like going to the pub and sharing a bottle of wine. I didn’t do that for the whole of my 20s.
“I just became very aware that I was getting a bit older and I needed to be happy in my working life.”
She adds: “I loved being leader and there are elements of it that I miss.
“I loved FMQs, I thought I was good at FMQs, I liked the TV debates, I liked doing the visits, I liked being out meeting people.
“But you’re not just the leader, you’re the jannie. You’re the first one up in the morning, you’re the last one to bed at night. You are, because you’ve got these conference calls. We would have a conference call at eight in the morning. In elections times, we’d have another conference call at ten o’clock at night. You’re constantly making decisions, seven days a week. You were doing this on Christmas Day because there were papers the next day.
“The toll on your family life, your relationships, your group of friends, all of that. I look at Ruth [Davidson], and I look at the First Minister now, and I think people don’t know the sacrifice you’re making. Whatever they think of your politics and where you stand, the contribution to public life and public service that you’re making is phenomenal, and if people have even a fraction of an understanding of what it is, they should be impressed by the dedication, at the very least, that’s on offer.”
There’s no doubt that Dugdale’s private life has been a victim of her success, with her sexuality making headline news after a magazine published an article which revealed – against her wishes – that she was gay.
While it wasn’t a secret, Dugdale didn’t feel like it was anyone else’s business and had wanted to keep her private relationships out of the public eye.
“I’m not bitter about it,” she tells Holyrood. “In a way, they probably did me a favour – not that that type of behaviour should be encouraged.
“It was never a secret, everybody knew, certainly when I came to my work every day, people would know, I just didn’t feel the need to talk about it. But then, I understand that when you become leader, you have a leadership role in speaking for part of the community that you represent.
“I always was doing things to represent the LGBT community regardless of whether I was out or not, but after coming out, I’ve probably done a lot more. I feel a responsibility to do it as well.”
But Dugdale admits having her life scrutinised in such a public way has not been easy.
“It’s very horrible, but again, I accepted that it was par for the course when I became leader because you become more public and more of a public figure so you can expect more scrutiny and that scrutiny involves people caring who you go out with, what your family set-up is, all that type of stuff.
“It’s just another aspect of the great demands that we put on our leaders that comes with the job that they do. Sometimes that’s been really hard.”
Some might argue, then, that appearing on ITV’s reality show, I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here wasn’t the best way to keep herself out of the public eye.
Her decision to feature on the show – which meant she was in Australia during parliamentary term time – was met with a huge backlash, not least from those within her own party.
But Dugdale maintains that she made the right decision, even though her reasons for taking part in the show seemed to backfire somewhat.
Insisting that she still has not watched the episodes back, she says: “I’m told I wasn’t a massive success in terms of trying to promote Labour values on the TV.
“I don’t regret doing it. I do lots of surgeries and honestly, the vast majority – I’m talking about 95 per cent – of the people that I meet ask about it. The say, ‘good for you’, they ask questions and it breaks the ice. And they see you as human.”
But one thing she says she does regret deeply is the timing of when the news broke that she was going into the jungle, as it overshadowed the announcement that Richard Leonard was replacing her as Scottish Labour leader.
She cites this as one of the things she looks back on which “caused a lot of hurt to my colleagues”.
“The timing of that coming out, the Friday night before Richard’s announcement, that wasn’t fair. That wasn’t deliberate, I mean, The Sun just ran it as some sort of exclusive, there was no malicious intent on my part, but that really hurt his first 24 hours, he was on the back foot instantly.
“If I’d been in his shoes, I’d be absolutely raging at that as well, very angry.”
When asked how else she had “hurt” her colleagues, Dugdale explains: “When I announced I was leaving being leader, nobody really saw it coming, I don’t think, so everybody was kind of on the back foot and a lot of people were angry at me for that because they thought we were really starting to make progress, we’d gone from having one MP to a group of seven, things were really starting to come to the fore and then I packed up my bags and went.”
Since then, things have been difficult for Dugdale and for the party as a whole and it has struggled with in-fighting to the point where the group is almost split down the middle.
So what does Leonard need to do to reunite his party and repair the damage?
“I’m a bit reluctant to try and offer him advice because the set of circumstances that he’s inherited are very different to the circumstances that I did,” she says.
“I did four national elections and one EU referendum, so on the one hand, that was a massive advantage because it meant I was able to build a profile. I was out and about doing lots of visits, I was meeting lots of people, I was on TV debates constantly, I could build up all those skills, I could do all that, people knew who I was.
“The downside of that was I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to do some of the internal reforms. Richard has the benefit of time, but then, is that time being well spent?
“What advice would I give him? I think the party is sick. There’s something fundamentally not well. It’s not a healthy place to be, in all sorts of ways. And I’m probably as much of a contributor to that as I am a complainer about it, so I think the leader now has to find a way of healing the party in the round.
“And that’s not just about appeasing folk but just about trying to create a space where people can become friends and allies again in a way where they want to collectively work. It feels like a lot of tension, with one side pulling against the other and there’s a lot of that reflected in what Neil Findlay said since he’s announced that he’s standing down.
“There’s something very fundamentally wrong at that level. If the roots are rotten and not right, you can’t expect the rest of the team to flourish.”
As well as watching her party crumble around her, Dugdale also had the burden of the legal case brought against her by pro-independence blogger Stuart Campbell weighing heavily on her shoulders until she eventually won the case in April this year.
The Wings Over Scotland blogger had accused Dugdale of defamation after she wrote in a Daily Record column that he had sent “homophobic tweets”.
Dugdale’s article, the court ruled, was protected under the principle of fair comment, and as a result, she was not liable to pay the £25,000 damages Campbell was seeking.
Although the ruling was a huge relief to Dugdale, after an agonising two-year ordeal, her relationship with her party went from bad to worse.
“I don’t have any ill-will towards [Jeremy Corbyn],” Dugdale is quick to point out. “We didn’t disagree on anything on a personal level or politically for the whole time I was leader. There were no major dramas.
“It was only after I left [the job as leader], I felt so hugely let down over how I was treated in the Wings case and that’s when he stopped replying to my texts or my calls. I couldn’t believe that because from where I sat – and I know some people take a different view on this – the column that I wrote, I was leader of the Labour Party when I wrote it, I was a young, female, gay leader of the Labour Party calling out something that I considered to be homophobic. And the party of equality, which I was leader of at the time, wasn’t there to have my back.
“At the start of the process they had my back, they told the Daily Record to back off, shut them out the room, got me a year and a bit into the case and then dropped me like a sack of potatoes, so I had to basically go begging to the Daily Record.
“At that period of time, I can’t tell you how awful that was. I would wake up every day feeling physically sick that I was going to lose everything, I was going to lose my house, be declared bankrupt and not being able to be an MSP. I found that really, really hard. It was just over two years from the point of being served the writ to the point of going to court.
“The point where the party dropped me was because we had lost the preliminary hearing so the fear was real. I didn’t know what I was going to do, it was horrible. I’m not somebody who normally doesn’t know what to do, I always have an instinctual reaction, I’m organised, I’m planned, I like to think I’m relatively strategic and know how I’m going to go about doing things, so it was a really horrible feeling.
“I feel really sad. I can’t imagine, had I been leader, allowing that to happen to any of my colleagues – and I’m not trying to make a cheap point about either Jeremy or Richard.”
But despite her obvious hurt at the way she felt she was treated by a party she has dedicated most of her adult life to, Dugdale insists she is walking away with her head held high and with no animosity.
“I’m not leaving under any cloud, I’m choosing to go,” she says. “I’ve got a new challenge that’s beyond political life. I’m leaving a lot of friends behind here who will remain friends.
“I’m leaving because I want to do this job, I’m not leaving because I don’t want to do this one anymore or that I’m in any way disheartened about being an MSP and the joy of that.
“Not many people get to bring their own political career to an end.”