Kezia Dugdale was overseeing a revival in her party’s fortunes. She had established herself as a passionate and articulate champion of its values and even the Tories had to admit how impressive she had become in the many debates of Scottish public life. So why quit as party leader now? In her resignation letter, she says she has had a personal re-evaluation after the death of a friend:
Earlier this year I lost a dear friend who taught me a lot about how to live. His terminal illness forced him to identify what he really wanted from life, how to make the most of it and how to make a difference. He taught me how precious and short life was and never to waste a moment.
And she had this to say to BBC Scotland’s Brian Taylor:
“What I’m trying to do is something that politicians rarely do which is to leave with my head held high, without any sort of crisis. I’ve been leader at a very difficult time in my party’s history… but there’s four years ahead before the next election and I want to give the next person the space and time to do the right thing by the party.”
All logical enough. Alex Salmond quit, the first time around, precisely so he could have people asking why. Better than folk asking why you’re staying, he said. Kezia Digdale did well in the last general election, taking the number of Scottish Labour MPs from one to seven and its share of the vote to 27 per cent, up almost 3 per cent.
But she has always been against Jeremy Corbyn, and was never shy about it, calling for him to resign last year. Earlier this year, I was on Question Time with her in Sunderland. John McDonnell had not turned up and at the last minute they asked her to drive 120 miles to Sunderland. She flew straight into battle, with no preparation: or, rather, she was always prepared. She was superb, as always. But she could not really defend Corbyn. At Labour conference last year she has a huge battle to secure her place on Labour’s governing National Executive Committee. If she was replaced on the NEC by a pro-Corbyn figure (like Alex Rowley, deputy leader in Scotland) that would have quite big implications for Labour.
I wonder if, after his visit to Scotland last week, she decided that it was his party and she’d cry off if she wanted to? Buzzfeed’s Jamie Ross has been quoting a Scottish source saying that Kezia was “hounded out” by Corbyn’s “mob”. Brian Taylor says she has denied this to him.
Labour moderates everywhere are giving up the fight. If Kezia had concluded that the monentum is with Momentum and that Corbynism is coming to Scotland I can see why she would not stick around for the character assassination and skullduggery that would follow. She isn’t a believer in the new Laura Pidcock-style “hate your opponent” politics: she’s so untribal that she is dating a nationalist MSP. She’s a centrist who would rather win someone over than try to destroy them.
This could be bias towards someone from the same corner of Scotland as me, but I suspect the quote about her friend is, actually, the truth: that she is thinking about her life and whether she has the singleminded commitment to be party leader. Especially if it might not be leading anywhere.
Ruth Davidson lives the job, but she’s on a journey that could lead to Bute House. If Kezia Dugdale concluded that her journey was leading to a shallow grave under a Corbynista’s shovel then you can see why, on balance, she walked rather than wait for this denouement.
I’m no Labour supporter, but I’ve always thought the party was stronger and more appealing with likeable, intelligent and passionate voices like hers. The Scottish Labour Party is not exactly brimming with leadership talent. I think it will struggle to find someone as likeable, energetic or articulate as Kezia.
When last I met her, earlier on in the summer, I asked how she copes with it all. “I just keep smiling,” she said. She has resigned, it seems, so she can keep smiling. But as her party settles down to its sixth leadership contest in a decade, choosing from a not-exactly-bottomless pool of talent, I’m not sure it has so much to smile about.