Interview : Kezia Dugdale, Member of Scottish Parliament
Photo : Kezia Dugdale MSP | Credit : All photos by Thomas Anderson
Kezia Dugdale is a Member of Scottish Parliament and the former leader of the Scottish Labour Party. She made the headlines in 2016 by coming out as gay and in 2017 she was named ‘Politician of the Year’ at Scotland’s biggest LGBT+ awards, the Icon Awards. Later that year she braved the jungle and took part in the hit TV show ‘I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!’. Our Founder Thomas Anderson chatted to Kezia about her career, the importance of role models and inclusive leadership, staff network groups…and lots more.
How would you describe yourself in five words?
Oh god, what a question! Committed, political, feminist, tired and hungry!
How was your time at school?
I guess my schooling and childhood are a story of two parts. I went to primary school in the North East of Scotland in a town called Elgin and I went to secondary school in Dundee.
My experience of Elgin was pretty much idyllic, with its beautiful old victorian buildings and loads of green grass and woods to play in. It was a very small, safe and community focussed place. What that meant was all I wanted to do was get out of school and play with my friends. I was really sporty at primary school and enjoyed playing football and hockey. I remember it very fondly.
At the end of primary school my family moved to Dundee because my mum got promoted in her work and that was an equally happy experience, but very different surroundings. I went from there being vast open spaces with trees and woods to a very urban secondary school in a town with lots of challenges. Dundee was a place with deep rooted poverty, but with lots of amazing things happening there too.
I became a lot more studious at secondary school. I started to care more about my studies and I began to work harder than I had at primary school – which is probably the right way around. I was very conscientious and studious. I was bright – but not the brightest. I was also head girl. I think I managed to do this by being both good at studies and by having a bit of a sense of humour.
I used humour to dodge the bullies and to get away from some of the darker experiences. I didn’t experience bullying myself but I saw it happening around me and it was against the smart kids. I didn’t want it to happen to me so I tried to develop tools and armour like most kids do to get away from the bullies. For me, that was trying…I stress trying…to be funny.
“I used humour to dodge the bullies and to get away from some of the darker experiences. I didn’t experience bullying myself but I saw it happening around me and it was against the smart kids.”
What was your career advice like at school?
Careers advice was largely non existent. We’re talking 1995-1996 so for the school library to have a computer was a big deal. Computer software that supported with guiding you down career paths was just coming out. I remember doing that and I think it said I should be an Undertaker – something really bizarre at the time.
There was a lot more peer pressure from my teachers which was dressed up as career advice which was, “You’re smart. You have good grades. If you do anything other than law or medicine then you’re wasting yourself.” Looking back on that now it was horrendous advice because that gave me a binary choice. I didn’t like blood, guts and gore so I had to be a lawyer.
If a careers advisor who was really interested in me and was really good at their job had met 15 year old me and looked at what I was interested in and liked, I’m sure they would have worked out that I liked current affairs, I loved to read…Then they might have chartered me down a different path than the one I took.
What about at home. Were you encouraged to follow your dreams?
I was very fortunate to have two loving parents, although they didn’t love each other anymore. They got divorced right in the middle of my exams at school. I do feel like I had a really positive experience of my parents separating as they were both unhappy and separating made them happy.
Both my parents were also teachers so I wasn’t just encouraged to study, it was ingrained in their blood. The power of education was everything to them, particularly reading. I was an avid reader. They were more interested in me doing that then necessarily following a career path. Although I still think my mother would prefer me to be a lawyer rather than a politician because of the security of the job, money and status in society.
When did you become interested in politics?
Everyone thinks that because I was elected at quite a young age I was always political, but I really wasn’t. I liked modern studies as a subject (equivalent of Citizenship maybe). I loved that as a subject as it’s really current and relevant, so I guess that’s a bit political. I didn’t study politics at school or university as I was far too busy having fun and going out dancing with my friends.
I joined the Labour Party before I ever voted in September 2003. This was largely because my flatmate at the time was in the Labour Party. We were both unemployed and struggling to find work and we’d sit and watch Trisha in the mornings and chew the fat about life and the world. We’d spend a lot of time chatting about politics and she said, “All these things that make you angry. All these things that you care about. These are the things that the Labour Party champions or fights against. You should join the Labour Party.” So I did and I got a job working as a Welfare Advisor and I realised then that the system was broken and the only way you can really change a system is with the power of politics. And that was me sold. My life then became politics.
What does inclusive leadership look like to you?
There are all different types of leadership. I never did any type of management course or training and nobody prepared me for the job of leading a political party and all the responsibilities that come with that. Lots of these relate to not just being ‘a boss’, but ‘the boss’ and that’s the side of leading a political party that isn’t often told. I had zero experience of line managing people or teams.
I’d like to think that during my time leading the Scottish Labour Party that I did an OK job trying to generate teams so people knew they felt valued and their contribution meant something. I also hope I helped people feel safe in their working environment.
A big thing that happens in politics is that you have to be ‘in the room’. It’s a thing. People think that if they’re not in the room then they’re not important and they’re not a part of important decisions that are made. Sometimes this is true, but it doesn’t have to be that way. It was important to me to build up a working culture which didn’t leave people feeling vulnerable if they weren’t in the room. I wouldn’t waste peoples time. You’d only be in the room if it was absolutely necessary. If you weren’t there you could be away doing something else. To me, this is an example of what inclusive leadership should look like. Did I get it right all of the time? Of course not and there are many mistakes I made in the past that I’d do differently now
“I’d like to think that during my time leading the Scottish Labour Party that I did an OK job trying to generate teams so people knew they felt valued and their contribution meant something.”
When you started your career as a Member of Scottish Parliament, did you have a support network to help you find your feet in your new role?
I would say they were largely absent in a professional sense. In politics, if you think someone is going to stop you at five past five and pat you on the back and say you did a good job today then you’re going to be solely disappointed. It’s not that kind of workplace. I learnt that quite early on so you have to develop a thick skin and a sense of resilience. Only you can really be the judge of whether you’ve made a difference and done a good job that day. So I didn’t have a network of support or professional mentors in that sense.
There are a number of people from different walks of life, all older and wiser than me, that I would turn to if I was faced with a particularly difficult situation, I was struggling with something, or had hit a wicked problem or intangible situation. But this was all about relationships I’d built, rather than a more professional structure.
Do you think there should be improvements made to support people entering their new MSP roles at Scottish Parliament?
There is definitely scope for a mentoring system. But people would need to take it seriously. It can’t just be this tick box thing. When I first got elected we were buddied up and your experience was completely down to who you were buddied up with. Some people took it seriously and some didn’t. If there was a personality clash then it all just fell apart.
When changing roles, I think there has got to be some sort of system whereby there is like a soft handover. There are loads of little things that I’d like to tell my successor that I learnt along the way so he didn’t repeat my mistakes – like tips for leadership debates and having someone really skilled to run your diary. But it’s very hard to do this in political terms because there is a lot of baggage and judgement around this. Regrets…I’ve got a few.
Photo : Inclusive Networks Founder Thomas Anderson and Kezia Dugdale MSP
What’s the best career advice you’ve been given?
I was going to say the best advice was from the person who told me not to stand for leadership but that wouldn’t be true.
I’m going to say my mum. She was a very senior local authority director at a Scottish council who was in charge of huge budgets and lots of people. One of the bits of professional advice she gave me sounds like a parental row but it is solid working advice. She said sometimes the best thing to do is shut up and listen. I’ve always thought that was pretty good. And the second piece of advice from her is you should always be nice to people on the way up, as you’ll pass them on the way down.
Did you have a role model growing up?
Not so much when I was growing up, but I did when I got interested it politics. That person was Mo Mowlam. I thought she was awesome and I wanted to be like her. She was unconventional, she was funny and she got stuff done. She was hugely impressive and widely admired by people beyond her own political party.
I grew up wanting to be like a combative courtroom lawyer so I’m sure there were lots of TV drama type figures that I admired – this was pre Judge Judy and thank god for that. I often blame Ally McBeal for the reason I studied law at University but I’m not sure I would call her a role model of mine. She just about held things together.
Do you think it’s important that we have diverse role models in our workplaces, schools and communities?
I think they’re massively important. I’ve thought a lot about this recently. A cheesy slogan, but one that’s very true, is “You can’t be what you can’t see”. I didn’t come out (as gay) to myself until I was 23 and I didn’t come out to many more people until I was well in to my 20s.
If I sit back and get all philosophical about why I came out later, I think it’s because I had zero exposure to gay people, to gay women, and to gay women who looked like me. So there is a whole heap of stuff going on there and I’ve got myself in to trouble in the past talking about this as I’ve used clumsy language around stereotypes and all rest of it, but I’m going to do it again as I think it’s important.
When I was growing up the only visibly gay women in public life were Sandi Toksvig and Sue Perkins. Both were comedians, both radio personalities, both sounded English, both had short hair and they both wore glasses and had a very particular look. There were no women to my memory that were openly gay, had long hair and dressed like society determines women should dress – high heels, dresses and all that. That’s a very diplomatic way of putting it. They just weren’t there and I think that’s part of the reason why it took me so long to be so comfortable with myself and my own identity and my own definition of my sexuality and how I wanted to express that. So that’s a very long winded way of saying it really matters to have visible diverse role models.
I always think there is a hierarchy way of how we deal with equality issues in society, particularly within the LGBT+ community. It’s my view that whilst stigma and discrimination still exist, gay men have got it pretty good out of the LGBT+ spectrum. Still by far from perfect but gay men have made the most progress. Then there are gay women who lots of people still haven’t met or get and there is a lot of stigma and stereotypes associated with what gay women look like. And then only recently is society beginning to accept bisexuality as a thing and how it’s expressed and who it’s expressed by and there is a lot of progress still to be made. Lots of people think it’s still really funny to make cheap jokes about bisexual people being greedy and all the rest of it. It’s not accepted in the same way as being gay is. How we treat the trans community and the exposure they have, and the understanding people have of the trans community, has a long way to go. And then we have the not directly associated but related groups like people who are intersex, people who are non-binary, people who are pansexual…People at this point just freeze as they suddenly realise they don’t even know what these words mean, let alone know what they supposed to do to understand.
There is a huge amount of progress that’s still to be made in the workplace and in society to move from a world of tolerance and acceptance of people who are different, to one that’s truly and properly inclusive.
“There is a huge amount of progress that’s still to be made in the workplace and in society to move from a world of tolerance and acceptance of people who are different, to one that’s truly and properly inclusive.”
Recent Stonewall Scotland research reported that 36% of LGBT people hide their identity in the workplace and 39% of transgender people have experienced negative comments or conduct in the workplace
This is desperately sad. I saw Ruth Davidson’s response to this report and she kind of spun it a bit to say it’s good for business to have employees being openly gay in the workplace. I don’t disagree with this as it’s definitely the case that if people are comfortable in themselves and the environment around them is inclusive then they’re going to be more productive. That’s the business case for it. But we shouldn’t make this just about work. Just because you can be out and be who you are at work, doesn’t mean that you go home at the end of the day and feel the same way. There are a lot more fundamental problems there.
We’ve done a lot of work in my office recently around young LGBT people and the link between their sexuality and their housing status. If you speak to the Rock Trust who deal with youth homelessness in Edinburgh, they’ll tell you that 40% of their admissions at the moment are people from the LGBT community and they defy any sort of economic demographic. These aren’t kids from poor households who have been chucked out by mum and dad because they’re gay, these are kids walking in with their private school uniforms on. It’s not just about school or your place of work, there are still massive issues for society and intergenerational discrimination and a desire to be accepted. That’s before we get to the issues around disability, class, ethnicity, religion, gender…
What do you think is the biggest milestone in Scotland around inclusion in recent years?
Personally, I think it’s too easy to say equal marriage. As proud as I was to support it, it was an extension of civil partnerships and it has a religious element to it, but it didn’t deliver a huge amount of additional rights. So it wasn’t as systemic as some people consider it to be – for me.
The thing I think is probably the most important is the changes around adoption and fostering and an institutional acceptance that two men or two women are a family unit who can bring up children just as successfully as anybody else. I think the statement that sends is huge and far more change making. I think history will reflect that this did far more to challenge attitudes around LGBT relationships than equal marriage necessarily did.
“Just because you can be out and be who you are at work, doesn’t mean that you go home at the end of the day and feel the same way.”
How important are staff network groups to supporting more inclusive workplaces?
Massively so. I’ll give you two examples here at Scottish Parliament.
The first is our SPOut LGBT+ network. It’s been going for about a year and a half and it’s really taken off in the last nine months or so. Stonewall have their annual Workplace Equality Index and they (Stonewall) really struggled to get Scottish Parliament to bite and do stuff around it. They had a completely different experience to that of the Welsh Assembly who are ranked No1 in 2018. So when SPOut was set up they started to make the arguments around this and things quickly changed and Scottish Parliament realised they needed to get behind taking part in the index and meet all the standards required.
Then the network got bolder and braver and started holding stalls in Scottish Parliament. The team handed out their rainbow lanyards and now almost all the front desk staff are wearing them. Staff get stopped and people are curious about the meaning behind the lanyards and it starts a conversation. This is hugely powerful.
The other example is Clydesdale Bank who did a massive diversity and inclusion event in Glasgow last year with lots of different speakers. It was held at their HQ in Glasgow, really palatial surroundings, and it was fabulous. I thought it was such a powerful message to send to their workforce around inclusivity and why it matters. Their staff networks drove this and the management just got it, put the resources behind it, and made it happen. I was really impressed by this.
Should organisations reward staff who contribute to staff network groups and support the success of the company through positive coverage, recruitment and retention of employees and contributing to positive staff engagement?
I believe they should. I’m going to default to the trade union model of organising. I think facility time is hugely important. A lot of the work that’s done around promoting inclusivity in the workplace is done brilliantly by trade unions and they’re given on work time to go and make a difference and deliver. I think this should be true for those coordinating and developing staff network groups.
I’m also a Co-op sponsored MSP so my ideal ownership model for any business is employee led and the benefits of profit is shared equally amongst the people who helped create it – the workers. I think we could see a lot more Co-operative model businesses in Scotland than we currently do and this is at the heart of Labours platform for government. But until that is realised then we have to support trade unions to support and make those arguments across the country.
Favourite ice-cream flavour :
Vanilla. How boring is that! With a flake though
Favourite musical :
Favourite book :
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Guilty Pleasure song :
Shut Up and Dance by Walk the Moon