Former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale’s decision to head to the Australian outback and join I’m a Celebrity took almost everyone in Scottish politics by surprise when it leaked last Friday. And some seemed immediately desperate to underline the similarity between what lurks in the undergrowth in Scottish politics and what is in store for Scottish Labour’s former leader in the jungle.
Her Lothians MSP colleague and long-time foe, Neil Findlay, lost no time in denouncing the decision as “ludicrous” and said Dugdale had “demeaned politics”. For the Daily Mail, columnist Graham Grant summoned up previously unseen levels of chutzpah to channel Keir Hardie in his condemnation. And in the Mail on Sunday former Labour spin doctor Paul Sinclair concocted one of the most bile-filled personal attacks I’ve ever read, from which I won’t even stoop to quote.
All men, by the way. Funny that.
Partly in response to the bully boys, and partly out of personal loyalty, some folk rallied to Kez’s defence. Her partner, SNP MSP Jenny Gilruth, wrote in the Daily Record that her appearance could be a “tonic” and urged Scotland to get on board #TeamKez. A range of other SNP figures – perhaps not with the purest of intentions but with a keen sense for where the public are likely to be on the issue – jumped on the bandwagon.
And indeed it’s worth reflecting on what public reaction might be. We must remember that most folk don’t spend all day arguing on Twitter about whether a wealth tax is within the competence of the Scottish Parliament. (And by the way, here’s why it isn’t… [Tweet 1 of 94])
People care about where politics impacts on their lives, and they seek out politicians who look like they might be normal enough to both understand and help. They are, I would suggest, far less likely to be concerned about what her party rivals think of her appearance on the show than about who this bright, engaging person appearing on their screens each night is, and whether she seems like she lives in the real world and can answer some of its problems.
But within Scottish Labour some not unreasonable questions grumble on. Why such awful timing? Why didn’t she ask permission? And over and over again different versions of “How can she take ITV’s cash and abandon her people?”
There are answers to all those questions, of course. On the timing, it’s fairly clear the clash with the leadership result announcement was unintentional. If it hadn’t been leaked, the news wouldn’t have been public until last night when she arrived in the camp.
The existence of said leak speaks to the second question also. It emerged over the weekend that Kez had in fact asked Scottish Labour’s Business Manager (what the Chief Whip is called at Holyrood), and far from refusing he had simply said she needed to check with both the leadership candidates, which she duly did. This is probably one reason why the Scottish Parliamentary Labour group decided on Tuesday not to suspend her.
But there is no getting round the third question, and it is right that it should exercise all of us involved in politics. The choice to walk away, albeit temporarily, from the responsibilities to which you were elected and for which you are paid should never be taken lightly.
I know Kez, and I’m confident it wasn’t.
I remain highly sceptical of just how much political engagement she’ll be able to shoehorn into a programme which is edited for entertainment and confected outrage. It’ll be a tough challenge to be heard as a genuine voice amid the froth. But my goodness if there’s one person in Scottish politics who can rise to the toughest challenge it’s Kezia Dugdale.
I know there are people on all sides of Scottish Labour who have serious concerns about this move by Kez. For every long-term opponent gleefully launching an attack there is a long-term ally scratching their head, genuinely worried about the damage this might do.
To all of them I would say: this is the same brave, clever and inspiring woman who gave us back hope in our party when it was all but gone after the 2015 election. Let’s give her this chance.
I’m on #TeamKez.