WHEN she became leader of Scottish Labour last summer, Kezia Dugdale would use a football metaphor to describe her hopes for 2016. Following the general election slaughter - 40 of 41 seats lost, vote share nearly halved, Scotland the only part of the UK where Labour’s vote shrank and the only place it lost deposits - just “being clapped off the pitch at the end of the season” would be a decent outcome, she said modestly.

Eight months on, even that looks a distant dream. Stretchered off would be more like it.

With only an act of God apparently standing between Nicola Sturgeon and a second SNP majority, the big drama of this election has been about Dugdale and Labour’s fate.

If her party falls behind the Tories, Labour will face an existential crisis and Dugdale a swift and brutal end to her political career at the age of 34.

The day we meet at a bright, noisy cafe by Portobello beach in her target seat of Edinburgh Eastern, a new poll is predicting Labour will lose 17 of 37 MSPs and will indeed come third.

Yet an effervescent Dugdale insists she’s loving the campaign and party morale is “great”. She’s so relentlessly upbeat it’s almost troubling. She’s like the puppy that didn’t see the bus. You feel you ought to shout out a warning. ‘Behind you! The voters are coming!’

So are Labour going to come second or third? “I’m going to win this election, Tom.” Oh aye. Do you mean win the most seats or, that classic loser’s comfort blanket, win a moral victory? “We’re winning the argument.” That’s another loser’s refrain. “It’s two weeks to go. I’m going to campaign for every last vote for a Labour government and me being the next First Minister.”

After a bit more flimflam, she comes clean. “The plan I’m pursuing as leader of the party is for the longer term. Decisions that I’m taking aren’t just about the election. They go all the way through the election. The metrics of success for me are different than seats.”

In other words, she’s losing and the main question is scale. However Labour is quietly confident it can see off the Tory threat. Internal polls suggest a comfortable lead and it feels the ferocious voter hostility of 2015 has dissipated. “The anger has gone,” says Dugdale.

So what’s the doorstep pitch? “That Labour has a plan to stop the cuts, to use the new powers of the Scottish Parliament to end austerity, and to invest in education.”

Despite being couched in the attractive language of new powers - it sounds like a duty, even fun, to take them for a spin - the bottom line is higher income tax if you earn over £20,000.

The 20p and 40p rates would go up 1p, while the 45p high-earner rate would return to 50p. The result would be an extra £500m a year for struggling public services, say Labour.

Aren’t you kidding yourself that voters are going to sign up for more tax? The very fact you use a euphemism like ‘powers’ instead of ‘higher bills’ suggests you know people are tax averse.

The idea has “tremendous support”, even in middle-class areas, says Dugdale. It also helps Labour rebrand itself. “This tax policy, saying we can choose to do things differently in Scotland, is what the Labour party is about - protecting public services, investing in education, using this powerful parliament to make decisions in the interests of the people. That desire to do things differently from the Tories is part of the centre ground in post-referendum Scotland.

“There is a very clear choice at this election. There’s a gap of £3bn between Labour and the SNP’s spending proposals. Choosing not to use the powers means £3bn worth of additional cuts to public services, cuts Nicola Sturgeon is endorsing because she offers no alternative”.

What did you make of Sturgeon’s minimalist income tax proposals? “I was disappointed. But I wasn’t surprised because I believe Nicola to be very risk averse. Every opportunity she’s had to do something bold, she’s ducked it or gone for the softer, more vanilla solution. She’s the most powerful female in British politics, but what is that power for? Elections are serious matters where you put forward a policy platform rather than a cult of personality.

“Were I in Nicola’s shoes, and I would love to be, I would be much bolder, I would have a much keener sense of how I wanted to transform this country.”

But her disappointment in Sturgeon is nothing compared to her contempt for Ruth Davidson. The Scottish Tory leader’s pitch that only she can defend the union and only the Tories can be a strong opposition to the SNP is “bollocks”, scoffs Dugdale, launching into a tirade that shows Scottish Labour regard the Tories are their true opponents in this campaign.

“She says only the Tories can stand up for the union, right? This from Ruth Davidson’s Conservative Party which within hours of the referendum pursued English votes for English laws. Ruth Davidson’s party that used posters of Ed Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket to pursue division between Scotland and England. Ruth Davidson’s party that has the whole of the UK on pause for an EU referendum that’s really about who’s going to lead the Tory party. It’s Ruth Davidson’s party that sets working people against each other by cutting benefits and pursuing austerity. And that’s apparently how you stand up for the Union? Pull the other one."

Dugdale is on a roll now. “She says Vote Ruth Davidson for a Strong Opposition. Her party propped up the first minority SNP government. In the most recent budget, the Tories voted for the principles of the SNP’s budget. How’s that strong opposition? And she’s spent this whole campaign attacking me, not Nicola Sturgeon. How is that strong opposition?”

Labour’s manifesto is out on Wednesday. What does it say about the constitution? “That we are opposed to a second referendum during the lifetime of the next parliament.”

Even if there’s a public appetite for one? “We’re opposed to a second referendum in the next parliament. I think the mandate from the referendum should be respected.”

Aren’t the electorate allowed to change their minds? “I can’t support a second referendum in the lifetime of the next parliament. We owe it to ourselves, to the country, to put the issues and the constitution behind us and focus on using the powers of the parliament.”

Is it inconceivable for you ever to vote for independence? “Yes, it is inconceivable. On the basis of the economics, my feeling now is stronger than before with the £15bn deficit Scotland would be in. Scotland is better off as part of the United Kingdom, and that’s why I’d vote No again.” And if the economics changed would you? Or is it just an absolute categorical No every time? “I can see no circumstances in which I would vote anything other than No.”

So what are you offering Yes voters? “An end to austerity. I believe there are two types of people who voted Yes: die-hard emotional Nationalists like my dad who believe Scotland is oppressed by England, and those who voted Yes as an alternative to the Tories and austerity. I’m arguing we can use the powers of the Scottish Parliament to end austerity. We have the powers to make different choices from the Tories and we should use them.”

At a hustings last week, Dugdale admitted she’d been through a “difficult” patch - coming out, publishing her tax return, and being accused of being a secret SNP supporter on the basis of a 2003 work experience application. This must be one of the roughest times of your life?

“It genuinely hasn’t been,” she laughs. Her view is that for all politicians, intrusions into their private life are the price they pay for the privilege of doing the job. “It’s something I’ve got to suck up. Coming out was very easy in a way because of the tremendous support I got. It’s one thing to come out in the way that most people experience it. It’s quite another to do it and be in every newspaper the next day, and to read about your own life. The word I would use is exposed.

“So a wee bit vulnerable. My relationship with my partner is incredibly important to me and gives me strength and calmness, the ability to do what I do, and anything that goes near that makes me a bit anxious, a bit exposed.”

On the off-chance you’re not First Minister, will you still be Labour leader at the 2021 election? “Absolutely. Categorically. One hundred per cent.” You’re not worried about MSPs Neil Findlay or Anas Sarwar trying to take over? “I don’t waste a moment thinking about that. Why would I? Neil Findlay is a brilliant MSP and a very good friend. We work closely together. He’s got my back. Likewise, Anas and I are good friends.”

Dugdale reckons she’s done “a pretty decent job” as leader. “I’ve made substantial progress on the things I said I would - renewing the values of the party, bringing in new faces and ideas, and being a more democratic party. All of that has come a long way.”

You’re still going to get stuffed though, aren’t you? “I’m not giving up hope. I’m going to keep on fighting, keep on smiling.” But inside you’re crying, right? “I’m really not. I’m loving this campaign. It's an honour to do what I do. I get to go and meet people and visit companies and organisations and charities every single day. It’s an utter privilege to do what I do. It really is. That’s how I feel about it, and I’m just going to keep on doing that.” Look out! Behind you!