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by Paris Gourtsoyannis
25 September 2013
Fresh face: Kezia Dugdale MSP

Fresh face: Kezia Dugdale MSP

The relative freshness of Kezia Dugdale’s cultural references reinforces the sense that Scottish Labour has made a quantum leap by giving the 32-year-old MSP a shadow cabinet secretary role. In fact, she’s only been voting for about the same length of time that the TV show which nearly inspired a different career path has been off air – although that owes something to the fact that she didn’t cast her first ballot until she was 23. “I was of that generation that watched Ally McBeal and believed everybody could be a lawyer, stand in a courtroom and be really funny, and make the world a more just place,” Dugdale admits. Whether veteran MSP Hugh Henry, who she has replaced as Labour education spokesperson, is also a fan of the nineties-noughties comedy remains unknown.

Her childhood TV preferences are of course the least significant contribution to the overall sense that Dugdale’s appointment is a breath of fresh air. With most Labour politicians up and down this island unable to grasp a policy idea with both hands, she has many and is willing to talk about them. She also epitomises the dearth of tribalism in the newest batch of Labour MSPs. Tellingly, Dugdale says Lib Dem Alex Cole-Hamilton would make a great MSP and that she hopes “he makes it here”, right after saying she worked 16-hour days in the months ahead of the 2011 Holyrood election trying to beat him.

Her non-partisan generosity probably has something to do with her route into politics. As Ally McBeal should have, Dugdale quickly realised that law wasn’t for her. She had avoided student politics as an undergraduate, but it was while working for a student union that Dugdale became involved in the Labour Party, through an interest in campaigns for a national minimum wage and anti-discrimination legislation. She was mentored by Iain Gray and his wife, and then worked for several years as an aide to then-MSP George Foulkes before her election in 2011.

Few would question her commitment to fighting local causes since getting into parliament. The most high-profile, and the work she says she is most proud of, is on the Debtbusters campaign against high-interest credit, whose latest victory is a pledge from Glasgow City Council to abolish business rates for credit unions. Dugdale hopes the next response will come from the Scottish Government in the run up to Christmas, with ‘wealth warnings’ on the dangers of payday lenders being issues alongside public service adverts about heavy drinking and road safety. “I could honestly do it every minute of every day, and a big part of me wants to, because it’s the type of campaign that I think speaks to Labour values about the injustice of a society built on debt, and who pays the price for an economic crash – the poorest people.”

Dugdale is determined not to scale back her work on the campaign despite her new responsibilities, but she won’t need to choose between her shadow cabinet role and two other local issues she has been involved in. The fight for a new Portobello High School seems to be heading for success, with a private bill to allow Edinburgh Council to build on common good parkland being scrutinised by parliament. Castlebrae Community High School in Craigmillar also now has a future following protests against the latest threat of closure, although how bright it will be is uncertain. The council has promised a new school will be built by 2020, and that the existing one will be kept open until then; but in the absence of meaningful action to turn around attainment levels that are amongst the worst in the city, parents are likely to continue voting with their feet and send their children to neighbouring secondaries – including overcrowded Portobello.

“If you take Portobello and compare it to Castlebrae, you really have a picture of the challenges facing the whole Scottish education system,” says Dugdale. In Portobello, an excellent school has been held back by a lack of investment and will, while Castlebrae’s problems are more fundamental. “There’s no long-term vision or strategy for that school in that community, and until there is one, and the local community believes that there is one, there will always be a doubt hanging over Castlebrae High School. That’s why I think you have to invest really heavily now in Castlebrae High School to create a sense of hope and aspiration for a school in that community over the long term.” With 45 per cent of Castlebrae pupils listed as having additional support needs, “you can’t look at it and say it’s a comprehensive school.”

Dugdale wants to see that new plan begin to take shape now, with a view to developing specialisms for the new school based on partnerships with nearby biosciences quarter and local college campuses. The new school should reflect the area it serves, acting as a community and lifelong learning hub as much as a state secondary – an idea that she wants to see developed nationally. “Part of the vision that I want to articulate and develop around education is that the future is not necessarily to build schools but to build learning centres, so that when we build new facilities, we don’t just build them through the eyes of what young people want – it’s got to be a place where adults can access further education in a local community environment.”

The belief in lifelong learning delivered close to the community is integral to Labour’s foundation story, and also the reason why Dudgale will make colleges her immediate priority in challenging Russell in parliament. “Colleges are at the heart of what’s different between Labour and the SNP when it comes to education.” The collapse in part-time provision since the SNP came to office changed the whole purpose of further education, Dugdale claims. The average age two years ago of a learner at Jewel & Esk College in the east of Edinburgh – now absorbed into Scotland’s largest regional college – was 27. “Now with the ‘opportunities for all’ focus on 16-19 year olds, you’re going to see that fall right down.” The Government is “shattering of the belief in lifelong education”, Dugdale says, with fewer routes back into education and skills for older learners. The mantra she says she will take into the chamber is that there is “no second chance with the SNP.”

Parliament has only just returned from recess, but Dugdale hit the ground running during the holidays with a ‘private education tour’ of Scotland, meeting groups of Labour-supporting parents, teachers and lecturers in Inverness, Dumfries, Paisley, Edinburgh and Kirkcaldy. Dugdale wanted to canvass views on the two tasks she has been set by Lamont: developing a ‘20-year plan’ for Scotland’s schools, and coming up with a funding framework that provides a “sustainable future” for further and higher education in Scotland.

The latter is unenviable. Dugdale says neither she nor the party’s mind is made up, but the safe bets are on the Labour Party going into the next election without the commitment to free university tuition that they carried into the last one. Johann Lamont signalled as much in 2012 when she gave her paradigm-shifting speech on universal benefits, but Dugdale insists that tuition fees are a live and difficult issue for the Labour members she met on her summer tour. “The Labour Party really sweats it over higher education. We sweat it for very good reason because we’re deeply uncomfortable with the fact that we have free higher education in Scotland just now, but quite frankly, we have the highest dropout rates, we have the worst student support package, and the worst widening access record.”
Dugdale says Labour supporters are aware that free tuition is an “electoral asset”, and that no one is rushing to give the SNP an easy headline. “If you don’t articulate why we are all better for having paid for these things, we’re not going to win.” And like many in Labour, she is personally conflicted. “Fundamentally, do I think that higher education should be free in Scotland? Yes, of course I do – but at what price? At the moment, the price is massive slashes to college budgets and huge numbers of unemployed young people.”

One alternative use of those funds that Dugdale would like to explore is a state-supported right to subsidised, or even free lifelong learning available to all but providing the greatest benefit to those who leave the education system early. Young people who don’t go into further or higher education between 16 and 18 get far less support from public funds than those who do, and older learners are entitled to even less. “I want to have a think about that – should public cash stop following you the minute you leave the education system?” If the entitlement to lifelong learning was designed to work alongside existing childcare commitments, she says, mothers in particular could make best use of it for a double benefit in terms of female employment and a reduction in child poverty. “My views are much broader than just tuition fees, yes or no,” says Dugdale. “If we decide to charge for that, do we have more money to do something transformational, or are we just going to cynically sit back and play retail politics? If we are, I’m not sure I’m interested.”

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