Kezia Dugdale and the Jungle that is the Scottish Labour ‘Family’

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, November 22nd 2017

The big story of the last few days in certain quarters hasn’t been Zimbabwe, allegations of child sexploitation in Govanhill on Glasgow’s Southside, the saving of BiFab, or the election of Richard Leonard as Scottish Labour’s ninth leader. And not even Alex Salmond’s weekly programme on ‘Russia Today’.

Instead our airwaves, papers and social media have been obsessed with news that Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour’s outgoing leader, will appear in the TV reality show ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’. This entails spending up to three weeks in the Australian jungle doing such purposeful things as eating insects and kangaroo testicles and living in close quarters with reality TV stars – all in the aid of tabloid front covers and higher audiences. And doing this while remaining an elected MSP.

This caused a huge stramash when announced by ‘The Scottish Sun’ on the eve of the latest Scottish Labour contest result. This was seen by some as an act of deliberate sabotage – indicative of Dugdale’s displeasure at how she was treated while leader and being constantly undermined by internal critics.

All of this became quickly enveloped in the early days of Richard Leonard’s leadership after he was elected on Saturday morning (defeating Anas Sarwar). The Dugdale question became one of the first tests of his leadership. Initially, Leonard indicated that suspension was not his first response but that ‘I think it’s something the group will have to consider.’ But this wasn’t how Jeremy Corbyn saw it commenting: ‘I don’t think it’s appropriate to suspend someone from doing that’. Thus, within hours a difference opened up between Leonard and Corbyn on the question of who calls the shots in Scottish Labour.

Sadly, for Leonard his election has for now been overshadowed by this story. He didn’t do major interviews on the day after being elected, apart from a short BBC one. When he emerged on the Monday the main issue the media wanted to talk about was what he was going to do about Kezia Dudgale. This isn’t surprising as the story had grown legs and wasn’t now just about some TV show in the jungle.

Dugdale will disappear from the UK for up to three weeks to stay in Australia and appear on the show. She will do this while remaining an MSP and leaving her constituents unrepresented. The only previous precedent for an elected politician on ‘I’m a Celebrity’ is Tory MP Nadine Dorries who was suspended by David Cameron for appearing on it in November 2012.

Dugdale agreed with Cameron on Dorries tweeting at the time: ‘David Cameron has been desperate to ditch Nadine Dorries since her election – how daft of her to serve him up a version on a plate’. Dorries expressed her support for Dugdale now saying that she ‘should not be suspended’ and this was the ‘time for party leaders to grow up!’

However, Dugdale said in 2016 – while Labour leader – that MSPs should be barred from having second jobs. Until last Friday she had a commitment on her website to give all her outside earnings to charity. That has now disappeared. Instead, she has decided to donate her MSP salary while in the jungle and part of the TV show fee to charity. Labour MP Jess Philips said this makes Dugdale ‘a hypocrite’.

It has transpired that Dugdale didn’t formally ask the party permission to do the show. She approached James Kelly, party whip, and asked for leave to do the show and was told with no leader she had to speak to the two candidates, Richard Leonard and Anas Sarwar. According to several accounts when she did this she asked for three weeks leave to do unspecified charity work, which they accepted. There has been surprise all round when the details came out.

Much, if not all of this can be seen as a storm in a media tea cup. Some people defended Dugdale. John McTernan, former Labour adviser and spin doctor called critics of Dugdale ‘incredibly po-faced’ and said: ‘There are millions of people out there who are alienated by politics as it is traditionally done’ and this gives her the chance to ‘show the human side of herself.’

Worse was the criticism. Labour colleagues of Dugdale were shocked, including some allies. MSP Jenny Marra said ‘election to Parliament is a privilege … it’s not a shortcut to celebrity’, while fellow MSP Neil Findlay stated it was ‘utterly ludicrous’ and ‘demeans politics’.

The most vituperative comments came from Paul Sinclair in ‘The Mail on Sunday’, sister paper to the ‘Daily Mail’. Sinclair was adviser to Johann Lamont when she was leader and clearly doesn’t like Dugdale and all she stands for personally and politically. She is he wrote ‘needy, wanting to overshadow her colleagues … with her dead-eyed smile’.

Worse in Sinclair’s strange world is that Dugdale is in a relationship with SNP MSP Jenny Gilrich. The article is framed by a photo of Dugdale and Gilrich looking happy and entitled: ‘You’re lucky you lost Mr. Sarwar (just look at Kezia)’, which Sinclair didn’t necessarily choose, but the piece is filled with this and worse sentiment. There are snide references to the break-up of her nine-year relationship after proposing and how she got together with Gilrich during a high profile trip to the US. He concludes that Dugdale’s adventure in the jungle and her relationship across the party barricades will only lead in one direction: ‘it will hasten her complete divorce from Labour as her love affair with the SNP deepens.’

This has become part of the ongoing pantomime whereby the Scottish Labour ‘family’ tears itself apart, and various people who are senior players, or consider themselves thus, knock lumps out of each other. One of the worst crimes in this Labour book is not showing the full quotient of hatred and disdain for the scheming, separatist SNP. This has, for as long as there has been a modern SNP, provided one of the central pillars of Scottish Labour, snarling and dismissing them as tartan Tories and bringing down the 1979 Labour Government (in which Labour never mention the role of David Steel and the Liberals).

This is reinforced by the bizarre world of embittered Labour ex-spin doctors who are endlessly on call to give their professional advice of the state of the patient: their party. They diagnose that Scottish Labour is in a terrible way, close to death, and that it wasn’t like this in the golden era of Brown, Cook, Smith et al.

Yet, these ex-spinners, whether of the professional ‘The Thick of It’ kind such as Paul Sinclair or John McTernan, or the unofficial kind such as Stephen Low (who from the Leonard camp gave us the legendary ‘Comment on Jackie Baillie Pish’ press release), never stop and reflect on what they contributed to the great Labour meltdown. Namely, for most of the last two decades, Scottish Labour spinners have let the story spin out of control and provided at the same time an endless series of cock-ups and disasters. My suggestion to Scottish Labour would be get yourself a new generation of spin doctors and media advisers: ones whose politics and identities aren’t stuck in endlessly fighting past battles.

Already the Dugdale stushie has assumed great proportions as it has been used by numerous sides in Scottish Labour’s fractious culture. According to one Scottish Labour MSP the Dugdale affair has ‘laid a trap’ for the new Leonard leadership to see if he will dare discipline someone from the other wing of the party. Meanwhile, to Paul Sinclair, the entire leadership contest smells of something rotten, as Anas Sarwar faced ‘abuse’ by Corbynistas (and Trots) bringing up such issues as his business interests, what his businesses pay workers, whether there is union representation, the private education of his children, and disdain for state schools. All non-issues versus showing how much you hate with every bone in your body the SNP.

There is a sadness in this story. Politicians as a class are held in contempt and worse by the public. But not all politicians are the same. The taxi driver view that ‘all politicians are crooks and in it for themselves’ is bogus and wrong. Kezia Dugdale was and still is a decent human being – personable, non-partisan and good at communicating and presenting her case. She was probably too decent to be Scottish Labour leader, and clearly sections of the party don’t rate such qualities.

Yet while party politics crashes reputationally and politicians look for media platforms to appear more human, from Dugdale to Ruth Davidson appearing in ‘Celebrity British Bake Off’, what do such activities aid? They never as some claim involve politics being re-energised and discussed where previously they were not.

Parts of Scotland, including First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, while wondering why Dugdale did it, will get behind #TeamKez. But ultimately, this and actions like it diminish politics, politicians and the craft of collectively changing the world, from the big issues such as Zimbabwe to the local like Govanhill. And in that they make all of us, just a little bit more cynical, and a little bit smaller.