Chatting to the leader of the Scottish Labour Party
Kezia Dugdale’s office in the Scottish Parliament is a nice sort of place. It’s painted light colours, and it has a desk area at the back, but further forwards there are comfy blue seats arranged around a low table. After an energetic handshake – bonus points – and various introductions, that’s where Kezia plopped herself down. I could hardly believe my luck as she smilingly told me to ask away – she knew I was interviewing MSPs (more specifically, an MSP she’d stood against in her constituency), so why not interview her too?
This particular interview was at very short notice – about 30 seconds of notice, to be exact – but, I thought to myself, if there’s one thing I can do, that’s improvising.
The first obstacle to overcome was setting up my recording equipment. Kezia was very helpful in that respect – even offering to record the interview on her phone when I was in a particularly dire situation with the microphone – but eventually, we were ready to go.
“Do you think Scotland would survive as an independent country? Let’s start with that,” I said, deciding to skip starter questions altogether.
“Question number one!” Kezia laughed. “There’s no doubt that it could, it’s a question of whether it wants to or not. We had a referendum two years ago, we spent two and a half years debating independence, 85% of people went out and cast their vote – that was 20% higher than any other general election in my lifetime. I feel like we had a big debate, we said what we wanted to be said, so we should move on from that, and focus on other stuff instead.”
“What about the Brexit debate – what did you think, did you like it?”
“No, not at all!” Kezia said, leaning forwards, “I thought it was a horrible, racist debate! It became about immigration, and problems to do with lack of money, which were actually caused by the Tory government, not immigration! So, no, I didn’t like the Brexit debate at all.”
The Brexit debate? “Horrible and racist.”
“Okay,” I said, trying to pass off my lunge for the microphone as a casual movement as I checked it had picked it all up (it was an unsuccessful attempt – Kezia noticed and asked me if I was sure I didn’t want the phone). “How do you make sure you represent your constituents accurately?”
“Well, I have lots of surgeries,” she began seriously, “I try to do as many of them as possible, so people can come and if they have any problems, talk to me about those, and hopefully I can, you know, do something about them. I also set up stands in the supermarket, so people can just come up and talk to you about things. Of course, the problem is, there’s so many different views in your constituency, you don’t just represent the people that voted for you, you have to represent everyone – it’s hard.”
“Okay, so I’m guessing you generally vote with your party?”
“I do, I do, yes-” she nodded for emphasis “-I’ve never disagreed with the party whip in my career, I don’t think. Although-” she chuckled, which partly served to disguise the fact she was now blushing “-there was one time – it was quite widely reported, did you hear about it?”
I shook my head, wondering if this was something I should know about.
“Basically I went to push the button to vote, and I pushed the wrong one!”
This time I joined in the laughter. “Oh no!”
“I know! But generally, no, I don’t vote against my party. If I disagree on a policy, we have a meeting – Labour meets once a week – we have a discussion about it, and then we vote. The majority’s what we go with, as a party, so whatever we decide on, that’s what I go with. Also because we were voted in based on a party manifesto, that’s what the constituents voted for, so we stick to the party line.”
It was around this point that we were interrupted by a bell, one so similar to the school’s period bells that I was halfway to reaching for my bag before I remembered I wasn’t in a lesson. Turns out, it was the signal for decision time –but, Kezia assured me, we still had enough time to finish the interview, and I shouldn’t feel rushed.
“How do you juggle work and personal life?”
“I don’t!” (More laughter.) “I’m so tired… you just- there’s no time to do anything! I only live 10 minutes away, it would be harder if I represented the Highlands or Shetland…”
“Yeah, I can imagine…”
After a moment to speculate on how difficult that must be, Kezia carried on.
“You try to go to the gym, nope [no time]! You have a horrible diet as an MSP.”
“Do you ever get recognised in the street?”
“You do, you do! Occasionally, in really odd places, you’re out doing your weekly shop and people go ‘is that Kezia Dugdale’? Not too often, though.”
(The bell rang again.)
We talked about social media use as a public figure. She confided that she had a team of staff managing her Facebook – there are simply too many accounts to keep up with – and that one of her trusted members of staff runs yet another of her accounts (I’d lost track by this point). As I accidentally glanced at the microphone, she rushed to assure me that he “doesn’t put words in [her] mouth”, not at all, and that he writes about what she brought up at FMQT, or what she said in debates.
“You have to be very careful with Twitter,” she told me wisely, “There’s a lot of journalists that follow me on Twitter, just waiting for you to- make a mistake, or- say something wrong, to swoop down on.”
Kezia still looked perfectly comfortable in her seat, but, catching sight of ominous red flashing from the microphone light, I decided to round off the interview there. After some jokes about what I’d do if the recording equipment turned out to have been faulty (after the mini heart attack I had when the screen took 0.2 seconds longer than normal to switch on, I resolved to always have a backup recording), I was off.
What would you have asked her, if you’d been there too?