Kezia Dugdale is just in from walking the dog when I grab her between jobs.
She’ll be preparing for her own Spotlight podcast in the afternoon after recording someone else’s that morning – a new ‘what the papers say’ style slot with William Hague.
She had half an hour to swot up on topics in the headlines, she explains, but reckons she just about managed to hold her own discussing Afghanistan with the former foreign secretary.
It’s a hectic business, this retirement from frontline politics
It’s nearly three years since Dugdale resigned as an MSP and quit the Labour Party, after two years as its Scottish leader. But she is living proof that there’s life after Holyrood – and she is still very much a force to be reckoned with.
From this week she’ll be adding a new strand in the shape of a weekly column for The Courier, in which she hopes to shed light on how the big political decisions are made – and how they impact on all of our lives.
“I’m not about the Punch and Judy of it all any more,” she says.
“I want to help people see that politics can be a force for good.”
For the last two years she’s been a director of the John Smith Centre for Public Service. It’s based at Glasgow University but works across the UK with a mission to build trust in politics and highlight the positive side of public service in institutions such as the police, NHS and councils.
Distrust is nothing new
Distrust in politicians goes right back to the 1930s, she explains. It got worse in 2008 after the Westminster expenses scandal and the economic crash and took another hammering as a result of Brexit.
In some ways, that’s not a bad thing.
“A bit of scepticism is always healthy” she says.
“There are plenty of places with authoritarian leaders where a bit more scepticism would be great but there has to be a balance and I don’t think we have it right at the moment.
“We have to ask ourselves why that distrust exists and why some groups – young people and those on low incomes for instance – are much more likely to distrust politicians than your typical middle aged, middle class male who’s pretty happy with his lot.”
As well as conducting research, the centre presents big thinkers, such as David Lammy, who joined Dugdale for a Power Hour session last month – it’s available to watch on the website – in which he spoke about growing up in Tottenham, which he now represents as an MP, and issues around race, gangs and community.
It also arranges internships in the Scottish Parliament and elsewhere for young people who might face barriers to public service, due to their race, gender or other factors.
It takes a pride in placing interns with people whose policies they actively oppose. It’s something we could all be doing more of in this era of identity politics and social media echo chambers, Dugdale reckons.
“It’s important to understand these people are not your enemy, they’re someone you disagree with,” she says. “There’s a lot to be said for spending time in someone else’s shoes.”
Life after Holyrood
In her previous life she’s have been in the thick of campaigning for the Scottish Parliament elections right now.
Born in Aberdeen and educated in Dundee, she went to university in Aberdeen and Edinburgh and went straight into politics after graduating, working as an election agent, researcher and parliamentary assistant before serving as an MSP from 2011 to 2019.
She was Scottish Labour leader from 2015 to 2017, famously appearing on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here in November of that year.
She doesn’t miss the tribalism of frontline politics, she admits, and appreciates the mental bandwith to think about the bigger picture.
“The thing about being a party leader is it’s impossible to switch off,” she says.
“As well as leading the party and all that entails, you’re sort of like the janny.
“You’re first in in the morning, last out at night and you’re responsible for how everything looks to the outside world – all those niggly little problems that somebody needs to be on top of before they become major problems.
“It’s all consuming. Don’t get me wrong, being party leader is the greatest privilege but there are other ways to make things happen.”
Now on the outside, she still holds her former profession in the highest respect. And while she shares much of the public distaste about the lobbying scandal currently consuming Westminster, her John Smith Centre hat means she can also view it as an opportunity to open up a discussion about the role of big business in politics.
“I think politics, and politicians in general, are worth defending,” she says.
“Most of them are motivated by good reasons and good values, even the ones I personally disagree with. A healthy democracy is a wonderful thing and it needs defending more than ever – whether that’s from the forces of global populism or Twitter.”
Difficult decisions will have to be made about what is and isn’t achievable and I’m hoping I can help people to recognise that
She is excited about opening up a debate around some of the big ideas being discussed in the public policy sphere in her column for The Courier. By doing so, she hopes she can encourage people to consider the kind of questions that those in power have to weigh up when it comes to making decisions.
“Take the idea of a national care service,” she says.
“It’s something that’s really come to the fore during the pandemic. I think everyone has a greater appreciation of the role carers play and what goes on in care homes now.
“There’s talk about a national care service rising out of the ashes of the pandemic, much like the national health service rose out of the ashes of the Second World War, and that sounds great, but difficult decisions will have to be made about what is and isn’t achievable and I’m hoping I can help people to recognise that.”
Trust is key in a post-pandemic world
The fallout from the pandemic means trust in politics and public life has never been more important, she believes.
Policies such as the furlough scheme have been popular and effective, supporting the economy and preventing the greater harms that would be caused to society if more people were out of work, but at some point the bills are going to come due, whether that’s in the form of higher taxes or cuts to public services.
“We elect politicians to do the hard stuff,” she says.
“And a lot of people will say ‘I’m glad it’s them and not me who’s having to do it,’ but if we want to have better politics we all need to be better informed and to know how to make our voices heard when it’s something that matters to us.”