Inside an Edinburgh flat in September 2003, long before anyone had ever heard the name of Jeremy Kyle, a young and unemployed Kezia Dugdale was watching the ITV daytime chat show Trisha. She was sitting beside her flatmate, who was drinking an original cocktail she’d named “a fumble on the beach” – a mixture of vodka, orange juice, and Kia-Ora. It was this moment, Dugdale explains, that set her on the path to fulfill her destiny as the leader of Scottish Labour.
“My flatmate Michelle had just finished her master's and couldn’t get any work either, so we were wondering what this university thing was all about. We were supposed to get great jobs from this,” recalls Dugdale. “Our other flatmate, Kim, was the only one with work at the Bank of Scotland. We’d all get up at the same time in the morning, Kim would go out to the bank, and Michelle and I would sit in our pyjamas, watch Trisha, and talk about the world.
“Whatever was happening on Trisha would be the start of a chat about whatever. Michelle was already a Labour party member … and she said to me one day, all these things you believe, that anger you, that motivate you, they’re all the things the Labour party exists to do or talk about or challenge, you should join – and that’s how it came about.”
You could forgive Dugdale, then, for cursing the name of Trisha Goddard as the Scottish Labour leader hurtles towards what is almost certainly going to be another painful night for her party next Thursday. Although it would be unfair to place much blame on her – Labour’s problems in Scotland began when Dugdale was still decanting supermarket vodka into tropical diluting juice – the party is on course to lose most if not all of its constituency seats, with some ominous polls suggesting it could finish in third place behind Ruth Davidson’s Tories.
She sits down with BuzzFeed News in a Glasgow café near Scottish Labour’s HQ the day after an STV poll had predicted exactly that, and ruined a day of headlines in the process. Dugdale had launched her party’s manifesto two hours before the poll was released and, instead of the press explaining her lovingly crafted policies to the public, they seized upon a glimmer of intrigue in a stagnant election campaign to speculate if she could survive coming third.
Did a bit of dread wash over her when she was told about the poll? “No,” she says, quite convincingly. “There were four polls in the days preceding that which told a different story. There’s a TNS poll today that puts us four points ahead of the Tories – we’re clearly second, our vote share is going up. Was it irritating that it landed on the day of the manifesto? Yeah. But I didn’t gulp, I didn’t have a sweary word moment. I’m quite calm, quite level-headed.”
Despite everything – the worrying polls, the allegations that she was turned down for work experience from the SNP, the newspaper whispers of leadership challenges – Dugdale is convinced that she’s enjoying this election campaign. She says she’s only sworn at her staff or herself on a few occasions, and is generally in “a good headspace”. In fact, in contrast to Davidson, who has based her campaign on becoming the opposition leader, Dugdale repeatedly says she still thinks she can win the election outright on Thursday.
“I’m very confident about winning every single vote,” she says. “As I said before, I haven’t given up hope of winning the election because of a fundamental belief that the way to change this country is in a position of power.
“What frustrates me more than anything about the situation Nicola Sturgeon’s been in is that never in my adult life has one politician had the power she has, the political support she has, the will of the people behind her, and done so little with it. That’s what angers to me to my core – I would love to be in her shoes to do what I want to do and transform this country.”
The election campaign has seen an unusual triangular battle between the three leaders. Davidson wants to attack Dugdale because she wants to become the opposition leader, Dugdale wants to attack Sturgeon to win back former Labour voters who are pro-independence, and Sturgeon wants to attack Davidson as part of her effort to drive as big a wedge as possible between the Scottish government and the Tory UK government.
However, Dugdale, who developed somewhat of a friendship with Davidson during the independence referendum, says she has been badly stung by how the Tory leader has treated her during the last few months of campaigning.
“We’ve not had a moment of drama where the friendship ended,” she says. “But what I really don’t like is how she’s conducted herself on this campaign. I don’t like her message and I don’t think it’s honest, particularly what she’s said about the Union, saying you can only trust the Tories with [it]. It’s my belief the Tories undermine the Union, that the actions of the Tories led to the referendum, and their behaviour post the referendum has continued to undermine the Union.”
She adds, with genuine anger: “That’s really, really wound me up, because I think it’s cheap and dishonest, and undermines the thing she’s trying to protect. You’ve seen David Cameron’s comments in David Laws’ book saying he doesn’t care about Scotland, saying leave it to the Labour party, yet she’s running her whole campaign on the basis that only the Tories can be trusted on the Union.”
Dugdale is tired of talking about Scottish independence. It’s been the stick Davidson has used to beat her with throughout the campaign, particularly after what she calls the “low point” of the campaign when the SNP alleged she had applied for work experience with them over a decade ago, and when she said it was “not inconceivable” that she could vote for independence in the future – a statement she now accepts was a tactical error.
“The mistake I made was thinking that, 18 months after the event, we could have a nuanced conversation about the constitution,” she says. “My great fear about the future of Scotland is that how you vote in the general election, how you vote in the Scottish election, how you vote for your councilor, will be defined by what you did on one day in September 2014.
“I don’t want to live in a country where all that matters is whether you were Yes or No. Our country is divided, hurting, and sore because of that experience – as healthy and democratic as it was, there’s no doubt that there’s been a legacy. We need to unite Scotland again, focus on the future, focus on what we can do with the powers we’ve got.”
I put it to Dugdale that Scottish Labour’s problem with the independence question is that it’s never really identified itself as a unionist party like the Conservatives have done for decades. Even when Dugdale, who is only 34, was growing up and forming her political outlook, Scottish independence was still a weird fringe belief that only your accordion-playing uncle might bore you with at weddings.
But the speed at which the SNP has taken over Scottish politics has forced Labour to shoehorn unionism into its party mantra, which its politicians still don’t seem entirely comfortable with.
“I was 15 when Tony Blair become prime minister and the referendum for the Scottish parliament started to become a thing, 16 in 1998 ... and 17 when the doors opened,” she says. “So all of my adult life, there has been a Scottish parliament that has been the centre of Scottish politics, so I think my politics are defined by devolution rather than unionism or nationalism.”
She adds: “[Unionism] is not a word I’ve ever used to describe my politics, but that doesn’t mean I’d dismiss it out of hand either. I’m a democratic socialist, my politics are defined by a desire to tackle poverty and inequality. The constitution is completely secondary to what motivates me to get out of bed in the morning and do what I do.”
Away from independence, the other criticism that has been leveled at Dugdale during the campaign is that she’s simply too nice for politics. She’s perplexed – angry, even – when people say that they feel sorry for her or that she should do something else for a while and return to politics in fairer weather. STV’s Stephen Daisley began an interview last week saying he wanted to “give her a hug and tell her everything's going to be okay”, which I recite to her.
“I don’t want a hug, I’m fine,” Dugdale says quite loudly to me, turning some heads in the café. “I know what I’m doing – I knew what I was doing when I signed up for this job, the polls were challenging then and challenging now. I’ll always take a hug but I don’t need a hug. That sticks in the throat a bit."
She adds: “I read in places that I’m too nice, but what a pathetic state politics is in when we worry about our politicians being decent human beings. At the end of Stephen’s piece, he said if you had Ruth, Nicola, me, and a bunny on the edge of despair, Nicola would take a picture with it, Ruth would strangle it, and I would phone the RSPCA.
“You’d vote for the person who’d phone the RSPCA, wouldn’t you? Are we really saying that what matters more is the selfie and the final last thump on the head? I’m not going to apologise for being a decent human being.”
Fair enough, but if it were enough for first ministers or prime ministers to be decent human beings, Ed Miliband would probably be in 10 Downing Street right now. Can Dugdale be angry, combative, and ruthless?
“Do you think I would be in this job if I couldn’t be ruthless?” she replies, slightly irritated by the question. “Do you think I’d have got this far in my career at my age, with my gender, with my background, if I couldn’t be ruthless? I’ve already shown I can make tough decisions: look at the tax policy as an example of that.
“A bold, decisive move, a tough decision that was going to have consequences, it was the right thing to do and I made that call. There are countless things I can point to like that that I’ve done.”
Whatever happens next Thursday, Dugdale is certain she will be the leader of Scottish Labour for years to come – and, to be fair, there’s no one else you could point to in the party who could do a better job than she’s doing. She says if she’s not elected first minister next week, she’ll continue in her “five-year plan” to renew the party.
“I’m not going to spend five years trying to bring down the SNP – I’m going to spend five years trying to build up the Labour party as an alternative party of government,” she says. “I’ve done a lot of that work just now, and I haven’t given up hope of campaigning and winning next week because I want the possibility of power. My five-year plan is renewing the Scottish Labour party; in terms of our values, our future focus, the Labour family itself.”
And at the end of that five years? “I’ll be first minister of Scotland,” she says. “I want to be the next first minister of Scotland. That can happen on Thursday, in five years' time, but I want to have the possibility of transforming this country – to govern, to lead.”
If she’s right – if Dugdale does end the SNP’s dominance, possibly saving the Union in the process – then, and only then, will we know the true impact of a Trisha episode that may still reverse the tides of Scottish history.
Jamie Ross is a Scotland reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Edinburgh.
Contact Jamie Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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