Jackie Baillie has had a good year. A very good year. 

While watching her party close in on the SNP in the polls, the deputy Scottish Labour leader was made a Dame, helped secure a resounding win in the Rutherglen & Hamilton West by-election, and was last week named the Herald Scottish Politician of 2023.

One of the few MSPs left from Holyrood’s 1999 intake, and the only Labour one to have held her seat continuously since then, the former minister’s experience has been invaluable to leader Anas Sarwar as she toiled behind the scenes while he worked front of house. Together, they have turned Scottish Labour’s electoral fortunes around.

A few years ago, the party was circling the drain under Richard Leonard. Now it looks set to oust the SNP from seats across the central belt at the general election, potentially helping Sir Keir Starmer into Number 10 with a solid majority behind him. 

Speaking to the Herald in her Dumbarton constituency office a few steps from the volcanic rock that overlooks the town, Dame Jackie senses another geological phenomenon is nigh.

The Herald: Anas Sarwar and Jackie Baillie

Jackie Baillie with Anas Sarwar

A veteran of many false dawns, she says talking to voters in the by-election over a six-month campaign told her the political tremors were gathering pace.  

“This does feel different,” she says. “This feels like the tectonic plates shifting. I see two governments that, no matter what they do, they can't seem to get things right.

“I've been around. I've seen 1992 where it was Neil Kinnock [leading Labour to defeat]. I’ve seen 1997, where it was Tony Blair. This feels much better than ‘92.

“The thing that’s changed is Anas as leader and the party's determination that this isn’t as good as it gets, either for the party or the country.”

The by-election, triggered by voters sacking the former SNP MP Margaret Ferrier for breaking Covid rules in a recall petition, was transformative.

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Not only did it super-charge Scottish Labour’s momentum, it brought activists together for something they could finally savour after a long diet of misery. 

Hardened canvassers used to getting an earful on the doorstep found conversations with voters were “really easy” and productive.

“People wanted to talk to us,” says Dame Jackie, still sounding slightly startled by it. “That was a change for Labour since 2014. A complete turnaround. 

“It was a huge motivational moment. There were two hundred, three hundred people from across Scotland on some days in Rutherglen and it was so heartening to see.”

The by-election became a training ground for newly selected general election candidates who bonded with their teams and went back to the constituencies with fresh hope.

The Herald: Dame Jackie Baillie

“We needed something to galvanise us,” she admits. “At the start of the year, I had six constituencies I was targeting. Now there’s a lot more where we are competitive and I have a queue of candidates for seats that aren’t even on my watch list.” 

One of the jokes at Holyrood is that Dame Jackie and Mr Sarwar cut a deal after he was elected leader in 2021. He’d do the telly, and she’d run the party. Like chairman and CEO.

Is there an element of truth in that? “Listen, we are a dream team. Anas and I work really well together. We have different skill sets. We play to both really well. I will do a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff - that's appropriate for a deputy to do. 

“I will do everything in my power to support Anas, to support the party winning, and to support Anas being the next First Minister. That is my sole objective.”

The behind-the-scenes work never stops. Once she finishes overseeing the selection of general election candidates in the New Year, she aims to get the party “battle ready” for an election as soon as May, and then move onto picking contenders for Holyrood 2026.

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There have already been “long nights on Zoom” interviewing everyone who applies. Her omni-presence in the process has irked some in the party, particularly on the Left, who fear their choices are being blocked.

On the Edinburgh Fringe in August, Mr Sarwar called her his “designated bastard”, the kind of enforcer all good teams need in the mix. She sort of denies it.

“He bought me a bottle of gin to apologise. But somebody needs to do the heavy lifting. “Somebody needs to kind of say, Okay, if we're serious about this, then let's get serious. 

“If that means I'm the designated bastard, fair enough. 

“We could have the best policies in the world. But unless you win elections, you're not implementing them, you're not making a difference. 

“Political parties should focus on producing the best representatives they can. 

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“It’s saying to the electorate, We're serious. We don't want to just put anybody up with a rosette on and you can vote for them. We want the best.”

Dame Jackie turns 60 in January, making her 62 at the next Holyrood election, and 67 when the next parliament ends, by when she may well have been MSP for 32 years. 

Is she one of those politicians who never retires?

“Absolutely not. I will stand again in 2026. After that, I think there comes a point where people need new and fresh representatives. I was the first woman to represent Dumbarton, which is a matter of pride. I don't want to be the last. I need to make sure there is a line of people wanting to come and stand in this seat and represent people here.”

If she is re-elected in 2026 and Labour win power at Holyrood, she says she would “love” to be a minister again. She even has plans in mind.

The Herald: Jackie Baillie and Anas Sarwar

“Doing the portfolio of health and social care is just amazing because you meet people who are so dedicated to the NHS. But it's in a perilous condition. So how do we help them make things better? For 12 years now, I've been banging on about reducing the number of health boards. Finally, I might get an opportunity to do that, to reshape the NHS so that it is much more nimble and light on its feet, focused on clinicians and nursing staff and what they're doing, and focused on patient safety.

“I would also like to make sure there is transparency and accountability between the parliament and government. That might mean we are the ones under scrutiny. But I would welcome that. There is a power imbalance that needs to be fixed.”

All that depends on the state of the SNP as well as Labour. While insisting she is not complacent, she says the SNP is starting to “lose the plot”, worn out after 16 years in office. 

“There is so much hanging over the SNP. Whether it's Operation Branchform. Whether it's Alex Salmond pursuing the Scottish Government and indeed Nicola Sturgeon. 

“Humza being unable to get a grip and move forward. Even his handling of Michael Matheson and his iPad has lacked leadership.

The Herald: Jackie Baillie

“People will be really disappointed because they've invested their belief in the SNP for 16 years. They don't see a route to independence through them. They don't see a government focused on their priorities. I think their time's up.” 

With her title, surely her future is in the House of Lords? She sounds genuinely aghast.

“No! No! Absolutely not. It's never been my cup of tea. I only ever wanted to be in the Scottish Parliament.”

Not even if the King twisted her arm? “No. I'm quite content, thank you. The thing I like is representing people and in the House of Lords you don't have a constituency. 

“When you are a constituency MSP, you are sometimes the last port of call in what can be a really intractable problem. The little power you have to try get it fixed is really important.

“Scrutinising legislation? I can do that. Debating in the chamber? Yes, I enjoy that. But the thing that matters most is helping my constituents. That's what they elected me to do.

“I campaigned to get tolls removed from the Erskine Bridge. That’s was a big thing. But in the same week [it happened] I came across a couple who were being wrongly pursued for £300 of arrears in their electricity bill. The couple had learning disability. 

“They didn't owe the money, but were completely confused by what was being asked of them. Fixing that was just as satisfying as removing the tolls from the Erskine Bridge.”