SCOTTISH Labour leader Richard Leonard needs a major political event – like a second independence referendum – to showcase his talents and give him a chance to beat his rivals, according to his predecessor Kezia Dugdale.

In a candid interview, Dugdale also said that online female independence campaigners would make great future politicians, and not just for the SNP.

This week the 37-year-old list MSP announced she was leaving the corridors of Holyrood after eight years to take up a new role as director at Glasgow University's John Smith Centre for Public Service.

Executive recruitment agency Odgers Berndtson approached Dugdale about the new position before she applied for the post, went through four stages of interview before being appointed.

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Speaking to the Herald on Sunday, Dugdale said her two years as Scottish Labour leader gave her opportunities that Leonard has not yet had due to the lack of elections or referenda.

She said: "He has had a lot of time and space to do some of the policy work that I never had.

"At the same time he's in a difficult position because there haven't been any elections, it's not the same chance to put his face and name forward to the electorate and be better known than he is.

"The polling I have seen shows it's not that people do or don't like him, they just haven't met him yet. That's a blessing and a curse.

"In not knowing who he is, they haven't formed any opinion of him so he still has a blank piece of paper to build on and that's a real strength.

"At the same time he is going to be going against two of the most recognisable women in the history of UK politics with Nicola Sturgeon and Ruth Davidson. That's a tough gig. He needs more of an opportunity to talk about who he is and what he believes in, and why he is different from them.

"There's a strange irony in that he is steadfast against a second independence referendum for all of the right reasons – that it is one of the issues that he is strongest on.

"He might come to the fore in a situation like that...Not that I'm inviting a second one, but that's an issue that he has real passion for and has a strong argument to make about how he sees the United Kingdom as a way to distribute power and wealth."

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Dugdale, who co-founded Women 50:50 and campaigns for better representation of women in politics said she is concerned that due to the increasing polarisation of politics, the rise in online trolling, as well as the intense scrutiny that comes with a front-line job, more people are being put off.

She explained:"I really fear for people who have thought about putting their names forward to stand for whatever party and how they might look at the world, particularly after the most recent EU referendum when things are so polarised and divisive.

"Politics seems stuck, and talented people who have a real passion for how they want the country to be might be thinking 'is elected politics the way to go about this? Am I going to get anything done or am I just going to be ripped apart day after day?

"I worry about that quite a bit. "I learned quite early on that the only person who could be the judge of whether I was doing a good job or not was me. You are not looking for a clap on the back or plaudits all the time, and you do listen to critics but you have to have the ability to get up in the morning and keep carrying on.

"I don't think any of my criticism was unfair, but the question is, is everyone as robust as I am to get up and get through that? I see a lot of incredibly talented women online, a lot of them associated with the independence movement, who I know would be phenomenal politicians. In all parties.

"Many I know are taking a step back as they're not sure if this is for them."

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During her eight years as a list MSP for Lothian, Dugdale has come under fire for several statements deemed as U-turns by her opponents, most notably her criticism of Jeremy Corbyn's ability to win an election should he become Labour leader.

After voting for Yvette Cooper in the initial leadership contest of 2015, Dugdale called for Corbyn to resign in June 2016 when a majority of Labour MPs passed a vote of no confidence in the leader.

In August that year she openly campaigned for Owen Smith to replace him, stating that she didn't think Labour could win an election with Corbyn at the helm. A week later, she resigned as Scottish Labour leader following Corbyn's re-election, and later said during an interview that "of course" Corbyn-led Labour could win an election.

The MSP still insists she did not change her view on Corbyn, and their relationship had nothing to do with her resignation as leader.

She said: "I didn't change my mind on it, I just used different words to describe what was going on.

"I don't accept I did [change my position]. I said I don't think Jeremy Corbyn can win a general election. We had a general election – he didn't win it. He did better than people expected but he's not the Prime Minister.

"I always make this distinction between being a friendly critic and being some sort of enemy. In a healthy democracy, we should be able to say we disagree with someone without that meaning we don't support them. You should be able to offer an opinion which is different to what that person holds without being cast out as some sort of dark force. I don't think that's healthy."

Dugdale said the relationship between her and the Labour leader went downhill surrounding the Wings over Scotland defamation case, which she won earlier this year.

Dugdale was accused of defaming the pro-independence blogger , whose real name is Stuart Campbell, after saying in a newspaper column that he had written "homophobic tweets".

She said: "During the second leadership contest, I openly backed Owen Smith and people didn't like that. That never affected the relationship between Jeremy Corbyn and myself.

"That was always amicable and constructive, and we got on when we were both in a room. That only got more difficult after I stopped being leader, and that's all connected to the Wings [Over Scotland] case.

"That's when the relationship deteriorated, but when I was leader we got on fine and we campaigned together, and he was quite supportive of what I was trying to do - make the Scottish Labour party more autonomous."

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Dugdale said that Scottish parties, regardless of what form it takes, must have some autonomy from their HQs south of the border, and be free to say what they believe in.

She said: "I think what people generally want, in whatever political party it is, is to believe that people are arguing for and saying what they believe in, not a line that they have got to stomach because they have to appease someone somewhere else.

"That applies as much to labour as it does to the Tories, Greens, Lib Dems etc. I'm less hung up about the structures of how that is done and more concerned about the people genuinely believing that people are saying what they actually think.

"If politicians say what they actually think, they get a lot of respect from the public for doing that, even if people don't like what is being said. That is especially welcomed just now around Europe and Brexit. What people don't want is a fudge, or an obfuscation."

Dugdale will begin her new position at the Glasgow University think tank on July 15, and said she has no plans to return to the corridors of Holyrood but will retain her Labour membership card.