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19 June 2017

Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale’s quiet victory

What happened on election night, she believes, was "the sweet spot between being pro-Union and anti-austerity".

By Julia Rampen

The first time speculation surfaced that Kezia Dugdale could become the leader of Scottish Labour, there was a detractor: Dugdale. “I didn’t even expect to get elected,” the MSP told the Edinburgh Evening News in 2014. “To think three years on I could lead the party . . . well, that’s rather arrogant.” Then she stuck the knife in: “I’m a sidekick, not the superhero.”

Dugdale, now 35, was born in Aberdeen but spent her childhood in Elgin, a small coastal town in north-east Scotland. Growing up, she was interested in football (her father was a part-time referee) and becoming a lawyer like the lead in her favourite TV show, Ally McBeal. A tall, soft-spoken woman, she studied law and policy first at Aberdeen University and then at Edinburgh. She thought the political students were geeks. Professional politics was still far away: she didn’t vote until she was 23.

Today, Dugdale is not only the leader of Scottish Labour (and one of four openly gay Scottish leaders) but its comeback queen. The party, once the dominant force in Scottish politics, lost all but one of its 41 seats at the 2015 general election. Labour then came third (behind the SNP and the Conservatives) in the Scottish Parliament elections of 2016. In the 2017 local elections in May, it lost 133 council seats.

When the general election campaign began, Dugdale felt that Labour had already been written off. Undeterred, she drew up a list of target seats. To everyone’s surprise, her optimism was vindicated by the results: her party not only defended its existing seat, Edinburgh South, but gained six more.

Is Dugdale a Scottish Labour superhero, after all? Or did the party recover, as some Labour MSPs are already muttering, thanks only to Jeremy Corbyn?

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Dugdale proved long ago she was more than a sidekick. She is known to be a perfectionist, and by the time she entered politics, her organising skills were legendary.

George Foulkes, who served as a Labour MSP between 2007 and 2011, hired her as an aide immediately. “I moved quickly to get her into my office, because I knew other people were planning to offer her a job,” he says. Dugdale, “an eternal optimist”, ran his office for four years, and reportedly still keeps a caricature of him on her desk.

In 2014, Jim Murphy, a unionist known for his masochistic campaigning in the independence referendum, became the Scottish Labour leader. Dugdale stuck to her pledge not to run for the top job and instead was elected his deputy. But then Murphy lost his seat the following year and quickly resigned as leader. Dugdale was flooded with calls from friends and colleagues. They all had the same message: “You need to do this.”

Dugdale stalled for four days. But then another Labour MSP decided to run – Ken Macintosh – and she made her decision. “I wasn’t signing up to hold the coats,” she told Holyrood magazine in 2015. “I was signing up because I believed I could do it, I wanted to do it, and I could do it.”

At first, she floundered. As Scotland’s politics shifted after the independence referendum, Labour struggled to find a new line on the major constitutional questions. Aware that some 30 per cent of Labour voters had voted in favour of Scottish independence, Dugdale at first said that she would not stop MPs and MSPs campaigning for independence if another referendum were held.

Her apparent weakness on the issue was not helped by the way that her father, Jeff, a proud SNP supporter, enjoyed publicly teasing his daughter online. “Check facts before opening mouth, Kezia!” he once tweeted. But on 7 June 2017, he posted that he was “still bloody proud of Kezia”.

Dugdale has since clarified her position. She ordered her MSPs to oppose a second independence referendum. She has argued for a federal model to address the UK’s constitutional angst – and find a way for Scottish Labour to move on.

“Up here, we couldn’t have been listened to if we had not been clear about the constitution,” Daniel Johnson, a Labour MSP who was elected in 2016, says of Dugdale’s strategy. “It was only by being clear that we were going to get a hearing on the stuff that is in the manifesto.”

Meanwhile, Dugdale tackled a second challenge to her authority – the ascendance of Jeremy Corbyn. Previous Scottish Labour leaders had complained of being treated like a “branch office” by the UK party. To address this, Dugdale negotiated separate powers for Scottish Labour, so that she could pick her own Westminster candidates (two of the new MPs trained on a programme that she set up).

After the surprise election result, some of Dugdale’s colleagues are now arguing for stronger support for Corbynism. The Labour MSP Neil Findlay has publicly claimed that Labour could have more than doubled its tally of Scottish MPs if it had stuck more closely to a Corbyn-style strategy. Dugdale’s deputy, Alex Rowley, praised Corbyn for making victory possible.

Dugdale attributes her party’s gains to “the Labour family” and has acknowledged the popularity of Corbyn’s manifesto on the doorstep. What happened on election night, she believes, was “the sweet spot between being pro-Union and anti-austerity”.

More significantly, Labour came second in many seats it failed to win, such as Glasgow East. There is now a generation of candidates who, Dugdale believes, have “got the bug now. They know what they need to do to win.” Just two months ago it was unthinkable, but it now looks as if Scottish Labour and its leader are poised to win once more.

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel