I met Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland Margaret Curran in her Westminster office last week. The sun was shining, spring had begun to peer out from behind the clouds and the crash barriers were going up around Westminster in preparation for Thatcher’s funeral the next day.
Once sat on the sofa in Curran’s office, I unpack my various recording devices, explaining that I need plenty of backups, not least because I haven’t yet picked up shorthand. “I’m an Irish Glaswegian, I go an a rate of knots,” Curran admits. I can confirm that this is the case – she’s not someone who’s lost for words, and she doesn’t dodge questions. Perhaps that’s because she spent so long outside of the Westminster Village before being elected in 2010. She spent 12 years as an MSP – and had a rather bruising by-election loss in Glasgow East in 2008. Before that Curran was a community worker (in the constituency she now represents) and a lecturer in community education at the University of Strathclyde. This isn’t someone who has taken the short or easy route into the Shadow Cabinet.
Back in the early 90s, she was a prominent opponent of the Poll Tax in her home town of Glasgow. Speaking just before Thatcher’s funeral, the events of the past week had clearly brought back some old memories.:
“That kind of divisive politics – the legacy of that – still burns deep in many communities, not just in Scotland.”
Yet she argues that the kind of damage that was done to Scottish communities during the 80s also binds them to other parts of the UK:
“That bonds us in Britain, we do feel a solidarity with the North of England and the Welsh from those years…We were the price worth paying. That legacy is so negative and divisive.”
The legacy of the Thatcher years has often meant that Scottish politics has been defined by a race between the Labour Party and the SNP to be the anti-Tory party north of the border. Yet Labour’s campaign in 2011 – during which the party took a thumping, and the SNP gained an overall majority – was widely criticized for being far too much about the Tories, who aren’t a face in Scotland, and not enough about Labour’s plans, or the SNP’s for that matter.
Yet facing the Tories in Westminster and the SNP in Holyrood presents a particular challenge for Labour (the only party with a significant foothold across all of the British nations). Curran says that Labour has the potential to succeed in such an environment because Labour’s politics are “not just anti-Tory”. Meanwhile, she argues that the Nationalists will “change their policies at the drop of a hat, change the frame depending on what the issues of the day are, because their core is nationalism, whilst ours is social and economic change.”
That desire for social and economic change is what pulls Curran towards policies like the Employment Task Force she announced at Scottish Labour Conference this weekend.
Clearly 2011 was a wounding experience for the Scottish party, but it was particularly personally painful for Curran as an outgoing MSP:
“I think Labour had to come to terms with being a post-devolution party…You need to reach out to people’s everyday lives, and obviously we weren’t strong enough on that.”
“People ended up a bit angry at us when we were in power, because we were beginning to talk like we were just managers – not fresh, not full of ideas, not moving forward – and the SNP did present themselves as that, fresh ideas going forward, and now I think that’s beginning to run out, because nationalism is their agenda.”
Although 2012 was a turnaround in fortunes for Scottish Labour – including a notable victory in Curran’s home city of Glasgow – she assures me that “not one of us is complacent”. And quite right – in a February poll the party still trailed the SNP by 8 points as voters begin to look ahead to the next Holyrood elections.
But before those elections, there is of course the huge matter of the Scottish Independence referendum. And Curran is keen that people don’t assume that the job is done:
“I know the polls look good as if people are going to say no in the referendum, but I wouldn’t be complacent.”
“There’s a Better Together campaign which is doing a good job, but there’s a Labour case that needs to be made.”
Of course the combined campaign necessarily needs to include David Cameron – which might make the case for a stronger Labour campaign even greater. Does Curran believe that Cameron is a help for the Better Together campaign though – or a hindrance:
“I think people accept that David Cameron is part of the debate, because he’s the Prime Minister of the …but actually the debate isn’t about David Cameron at all, it’s about the Scottish people. There’s a real sense that this isn’t just a debate for politicians – or as I like to say, for men in suits.”
Speaking of those men in suits, she’s also clearly annoyed at the way the SNP – and Alex Salmond in particular – have attempted to claim the mantle of Scottishness for themselves. Certainly when asked, she has no doubt as to her own national identity:
“I’d say Scottish first and British second. If someone asked me my nationality I’d say Scottish. I think people get though that we have lots of identities though, that’s not a big issue. I’m also a bit Irish because my parents were Irish.”
Yet despite recent SNP attempts to cast Scotland as part of a Northern European/Scandanavian group of countries, Curran isn’t buying it – despite watching plenty of Borgen:
“I do feel Scottish and I do feel British but I don’t feel Nordic.”
Yet despite her (significant and strongly felt) disagreements with the SNP, there’s clearly still a grudging respect for them:
“They’re very good at PR, they’re very very good at communication – you’ve got to hand it to them, and I don’t just mean that as an insult. They are very very good at it, but at the end of the day, politics is about more than that.”
One piece of spin in particular seems to bother Curran particularly – their attempt to define London as the UK – and a very old fashioned version of London at that:
“They talk about London all of the time, but they don’t talk about England. They’re trying to impose a vision – a very old fashioned vision – of what London, and England and Britain are.”
She’s onto something there – I’ve listened to plenty of SNP speeches, but I’ve seldom heard them mention Newcastle, Carlisle, Sunderland or Leeds – all of which are just a short drive from the Scottish borders. Yet their references to London are a staple of each an every SNP utterance.
Labour’s key weapon in the fight against the SNP spin is likely to be the party’s Scottish leader Johann Lamont, selected after the bruising 2011 defeat. Lamont is an old friend of Curran’s – both were part of a 1977 attempt to get Hortensia Allende elected as Rector of Glasgow University – and told the party’s conference on Saturday that “Margaret and I have been making jokes at each others expense for years”. Curran goes out her way to praise Lamont’s sense of humour – which has been part of her improved performances at First Minister’s Questions:
“She’s very funny, she’s very acerbic and she doesn’t suffer fools gladly – and that has come across really well.”
And that relative success – having better satisfaction ratings than Alex Salmond in one poll – came as a surprise to some:
“I think part of why people are saying Johann has done exceptionally well is because they didn’t expect her to.”
It’s easy to see why Curran feels a strong affinity with Lamont. Both are straight talking and funny. Both are strong women in a male dominated political world. Both have spent years fighting for the Labour Party. And both women are – unfairly – somewhat underrated. In recent months Lamont has increasingly come to be seen as a weapon for Scottish Labour – the recent row over income tax notwithstanding – as we get closer to the general election, I’d fully expect Margaret Curran – a politician who wears her heart on her sleeve – to be seen in the same light.