Aidan Smith: Why Kezia Dugdale needs to out-purr George Galloway

Ex-Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale has some tough acts to follow '“ like George Galloway and Ed Balls '“ in the world of political reality TV, writes Aidan Smith.
Ex-Scottish Labour leader has some tough acts to follow in the world of political reality TV. Picture: Mark Runnacles/Getty ImagesEx-Scottish Labour leader has some tough acts to follow in the world of political reality TV. Picture: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images
Ex-Scottish Labour leader has some tough acts to follow in the world of political reality TV. Picture: Mark Runnacles/Getty Images

Well, she’s missed having to totter across a plank on top of a building 32 storeys high. She’s avoided being thrown from a helicopter into a pond. She’s skived having to fondle rats and eat kangaroo. But plenty of challenges still await Kezia Dugdale on I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!

Life in the jungle is going to get much tougher, even though Boris Johnson’s dad Stanley reckons all this organised group-jeopardy stuff will be “just like being back at boarding school”. For the former Scottish Labour leader, more than any of the other contestants, there will be the challenge of what they’ll be saying back at home.

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She shouldn’t be there. She’s demeaning the office of MSP. What about all those vital parliamentary debates – shouldn’t she be in the chamber and making it look slightly less deserted and abandoned? What about her surgeries, her constituents and their pothole/overflowing bin/noisy swingers’ party complaints? What about Scottish Labour? Even if Dugdale eventually decides “Get me out of here!” and joins the SNP, shouldn’t she be around to clap her successor Richard Leonard into office or boot him up the bum or whatever is the age-old custom?

Here are her challenges as I see them: to be as entertaining as Ed Balls on Strictly Come Dancing; to be as endearing as the politico who was the subject of the TV show When Michael Portillo Became a Single Mum; to be as did-that-just-happen? outrageous as George Galloway on Celebrity Big Brother.

I don’t have a problem with politicians doing reality TV. Yes, politics is a serious business. And I get that Dugdale is different from Balls and Portillo and to some extent Galloway. The first two were no longer sitting MPs, having both suffered epochal trouncings in their careers, while Galloway was the one-man-band of the Respect Party. Dugdale on the other hand is a frontline Labour figure, there will be an election soon, Scotland will be a key battleground and her party doesn’t need the ridicule. But what is it we’re always saying about politicians? That they’re grey, faceless and boring? Here’s another chance for one to prove otherwise.

Take Balls. Who knew he had a personality before Strictly? Who knew he could dance, or dad-dance, or that he’d be willing to paint his face green or dress up as a mad professor or pretend to be a mincing cowboy. Or that when his partner contorted herself into a wobbly table or an excitable pony that he’d hitch a chubby leg and clamber aboard and post one of the all-time greatest light-entertainment moments, right up there with Morecambe & Wise singing There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame with a chorus of somersaulting newsreaders?

Suddenly “Were you still up for Ed?” from the night of his ballot-box demise had been trumped by “Did you see Ed go Gangnam-Style?” Suddenly this fairly unremarkable character from a non-vintage era in recent Labour history – a bruiser, everyone said, and that was just about all they said – had become Britain’s most popular politician. If there had been a leadership contest the day after he left the show, he’d have romped it. Given the opportunity, the public would have voted him prime minister. That’s the same public, by the way, whose instinctive reaction when told a politician has signed up for reality TV is to grumble: “Wrong, in so many ways.”

Portillo’s reality makeover may not have been such an assault on the senses but was possibly even more sensational as he assumed the responsibilities of a two-job, four-kid, £80-a-week single mum from Liverpool. Accustomed to the finer things in life, able to please himself, never having to worry where his next case of vintage wine was coming from, and with a maid who stored it at the correct temperature, Portillo was in receipt of even less sympathy than Balls for having played the politics game and lost. Immediately after his docusoap, however, people who would never have voted for him were proposing him for No 10. “Resourceful, intelligent, thoughtful, patient, kind and open-minded … I am not a Tory but the programme has changed my opinion of this man” was a typical reaction.

There was a cynical view: that he’d done the show to improve his public image. Well, it could still have backfired. Most politicians are risk-averse; they’d run a mile from the leering cameras of reality TV and their butchering editors. Submitting to the all-seeing gaze still takes balls, and Balls.

Dugdale has yet to explain her motives for wanting to hunker round the campfire in Australia and eat wombat testicles with a football WAG and yet another member of the defunct Saturdays girlband. The last contestant standing on I’m a Celebrity wins a tidy sum. Dugdale will pocket some of her fee for taking part while the rest, plus her MSP’s earnings, will go to charity. We could hope, though, that like Galloway before her, she’s aware the show pulls in marginally more viewers than Today in Parliament and therefore there’s an opportunity to speak to the politically disaffected, especially among the yoof.

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Job done, Galloway told me later, although tragically most of his speechifying was left on the cutting-room floor. “I went into the Big Brother House fully intending to write an epic novel in my head about the Spanish Civil War but by the end I was falling out with Preston over the ownership of a bun,” he said. Preston? Another popster, apparently, but no one will ever forget Galloway puffing a cigar on the gym treadmill, donning a scarlet leotard for robotic dancing - and pretending to be a cat lapping imaginary milk from Rula Lenska’s hands then purring words into the actress’s ear which, she confessed later, made her “bottom jump and tighten excitedly”.

Follow that, Kezia.