In the interests of 50/50, it seemed fair for the next edition of the Devo Files to focus on a female MP – and, acknowledging the core values of the 50/50 initiative, I won’t be treating female MPs any differently from their male counterparts. I have zero interest in making fun of any of our elected officials’ appearances, genders, orientations, or otherwise: nor do I wish to engage in wild rumourmongery or baseless speculation. This series is purely about assessing statements the candidates have made in the past, the votes they cast, and important events from their term.
Margaret Curran needs little introduction: she’s New Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, she’s one of the most prominent New Labour MPs in Scotland, former Minister for Parliamentary Business, former Minister for Social Justice, and former Minister for Communities. She was also MSP for Glasgow Baillieston from 1999 until its abolition in 2011. She unsuccessfully fought for the Glasgow East constituency in the 2008 by-election, but successfully took it from the winner (SNP’s John Mason) two years later in the 2010 general election.
Out of eight hundred votes in the House of Commons, Ms Curran rebelled against party policy only once. That was as follows:
Business of the House – Size of the Backbench Business Committee
100 for, 331 against
She was one of 30 New Labour MPs (8 of which were Scottish) who voted against the amendment proposing that the backbench business committee would comprise a chair and fifteen members of whom eight would comprise a quorum, along with 254 (+2 tell) Conservatives, 47 Liberal Democrats
This vote, which took place barely a month after she first came into office, aimed to increase the size of the backbench committee from eight to sixteen: this would allow for a greater representation of minority parties. It’s notable that 84 New Labour MPs voted for the motion, along with the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Greens, and SDLP. Most of New Labour abstained.
It is important to note the number of rebellions an MP has made, as it gives an idea as to how they will vote if party policy conflicts with their own idealogy: if they disagree with it, then they will vote against it, incurring the wrath of the party whips. Given so few New Labour MPs even turned up to vote on this motion in the first place, it seems this was not a red-line issue, and Ms Curran could comfortably choose to vote the same way as the Tories and Neoliberal Democrats rather than the SNP and most of her other New Labour colleagues on this occasion. The question is why?
Public Whip record: 42%
Did not vote on a second reading of the Scotland Bill
Voted for requiring Scottish ministers to order officers to start counting within four hours of polls closing
Voted against devolving regulation of air weapons
Voted against keeping insolvency powers with the Scottish parliament
Voted against keeping responsibility for regulating health officials with the Scottish Parliament
Did not vote on devolving tax quarrying and mining
Did not vote on code of conduct for Scottish ministers in relation to the treasury
Did not vote on devolving the Scottish elements of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency
Did not vote on devolving responsibility for railways that start and finish in Scotland
Did not vote on devolving elements of the Crown Estate and accountability of the Crown Estate
Did not vote on devolving timescales, time zones, and British Summer Time
Did not vote on devolving food content and labeling
Did not vote on allowing the Scottish government to tax companies’ profits
Voted for devolving the regulation of shale gas extraction in Scotland to the Scottish Parliament
It’s important to note that the last vote on that list was made after the referendum, and featured pretty much all the New Labour MPs desperate to prove they were indeed the Party of Devolution – as a result, their Devo Files Score rose appreciably.
Other Votes of Interest
520 for, 23 against
She was one of 202 New Labour MPs (30 of which were Scottish) who voted for a cap on welfare spending, along with 271 Conservative, 41 Liberal Democrats, 6 DUP, 1 Alliance, and 1 Independent
According to the Campaign to End Child Poverty, after taking housing costs into consideration, 31.59% of Glasgow East’s children are living in poverty.
199 for, 293 against
She was one of 189 New Labour MPs (26 of which were Scottish) who voted for an amendment to the Infrastructure Bill, along with 5 SNP, 2 Plaid Cymru, 1 Green, 1 Alliance, 1 DUP, 1 Independent, and 1 SDLP.
Charter for Budget Responsibility
515 for, 18 against
She was one of 198 New Labour MPs (28 of which were Scottish) who voted for the Autumn Statement to be approved, along with 263 Conservatives, 49 Liberal Democrats, 5 DUP, and 2 UKIP.
I’m sure the thousands of poor people in Glasgow East are ecstatic that their MP voted with the Coalition and UKIP in approving George Osborne’s Autumn Statement, which promised £30 billion in cuts to public services.
Trident Nuclear Weapons System Renewal
36 for, 364 against
She was one of 102 New Labour MPs (9 of which were Scottish) who voted against the motion “That this House believes that Trident should not be renewed,” along with 254(+2) Conservatives, 1 Liberal Democrat, 5 DUP, 1 independent, and 1 UKIP.
Ms Curran may or may not be one of those strange supporters of multilateral nuclear disarmament who nonetheless chooses to spend a hundred billion pounds on a new generation of nuclear weapons, but it’s interesting that she accepted an invitation (though subsequently denied attending, unlike some of her colleagues, who will be discussed in future Devo Files) to attend a £246-per-head dinner by Raytheon – an arms dealer which provided laser-guidance systems for missiles allegedly used during the recent bombing of Palestine.
The Public Whip website has a handy collection of policy groups which gathers various votes, and offers a percentage system to give a rough idea as to whether an MP supports or opposes a given policy. A perusal can be quite enlightening:
Voted strongly against the policy: Referendum on Alternative Vote for MP Elections (0.5%)
Voted strongly against the policy: Tax Avoidance should be illegal (11.8%)
Voted strongly against the policy: Human Rights & Equality (19.5%)
Voted strongly for Trident replacement
Voted strongly for Nuclear Power
Voted moderately for use of UK Military Forces overseas (64.7%)
Voted moderately against the policy: Lower Taxes on petrol & diesel for motor vehicles (27.5%)
The Devo Files
Speaking at a fringe event titled ‘Devolution: Constitution and reform’, Ms Curran said there were questions that still had to be asked about devolution.
“We need to ask ourselves some questions about (devolution). Has it made health better in Easterhouse?” the Glasgow East MP said, referring to an impoverished part of her constituency.
“Has it made education better in Easterhouse? And there are a lot of questions marks over that.”
What’s more, at the same event, she seemed to be critical of the Barnett Formula:
“I do believe that we should allocate public funding on the basis of need and it should not be around just a regional or a national demarcation around that. And I think that is a challenge to the nationalists in the referendum.”
Yet apparently it’s the SNP who want to get rid of Barnett, according to Jacqui “Austerity-Max” Baillie – and indeed, Ms Curran herself, who tweeted the following three weeks after her speech:
Salmond asks Scots to trust him then continues to mislead. Barnett serves Scotland well, he is the only one threatening to break it.
— Margaret Curran MP (@Margaret_Curran) October 18, 2013
It seems very difficult to defend the idea of sending Margaret Curran down to Westminster to fight for more devolution when she herself seems to question the benefits of such actions – so why send her there at all?
Office Costs: £23,006.40
I post Ms Curran’s expenses not to point out anything particularly unusual about her spending habits, suffice to say that an awful lot of money tends to be spent on politicians of all stripes. That said, Ms Curran has a hell of a nerve using Buzzfeed of all places to make a few swipes at the then-outgoing First Minister’s hotel expenses.
Denis Healey Days
(start around 8:50 for the relevant excerpt)
There are many clunkers in Ms Curran’s history both as MSP and MP, but the most awkward may well be this interview with Derek Bateman in 2013.
BATEMAN: What do we make of Denis Healey admitting that when [North Sea] oil was discovered, Labour – a Labour government, ahead of a referendum, interestingly, on the constitution of Scotland – misled, deliberately misled the Scots about the value of oil?
CURRAN: Well, Derek, I don’t know anything about that, those times, I don’t know the basis on which Denis Healey said that, I don’t know the argument, I don’t know the papers around that.
DB: But you’re the shadow Secretary of State for Scotland! You’re a senior Labour figure, I mean, he was a Labour chancellor.
MC: I know I’m getting on a bit, but I wasn’t around in Denis Healey’s days.
At the time Denis Healey was chancellor, teenage Margaret Curran was a member of the Glasgow University Labour Club and the Scottish Organisation of Labour Students, along with fellow Labourites Johann Lamont and Sarah Boyack. She was highly active within these organisations: to the point of being secretary and vice-chair for the first, and chair and secretary for the second. She campaigned to elect Hortensia Allende as Rector of Glasgow University in 1977.
Now perhaps it’s just me, but you would think that a politically active young student who was at one point chair of Scottish Labour Students in 1979 would know at least something about what the Labour chancellor in 1979 was saying about the paradigm-shifting discovery of North Sea Oil, right? Especially considering how relevant it was to the SNP’s historic “It’s Scotland’s Oil” campaign, as well as Better Together’s relentless portrayal of oil as some sort of horrendous volatile disaster that only the benevolent Westminster could contain? And even if, by some miracle, she didn’t know about it then, should at least have learned about it some time during the eight years after the McCrone revelations were made public?
Seriously, what did she do at Uni?
Hail to the Bus Driver
While Ms Curran’s failure to comment on the highly important matter of Labour’s suppression of the McCrone Report could genuinely be chalked up to ignorance rather than outright contempt of the electorate, the same surely cannot be said for her most infamous quotation.
“I think if Alex Salmond went under a bus tomorrow – not that I would ask who drove that bus – but seriously, if he wasn’t there, I don’t think there is any other member of that team who could fulfil the role that he is playing”
Questions of Trust and Loyalty
Almost immediately I sense this is going to be a different sort of interview. Lamont and Curran are colleagues but, above all, they are old friends and both share a wicked sense of humour. They are completely relaxed in each other’s company, they finish each other’s sentences, laugh uproariously and when Holyrood’s photographer is trying to take portraits of the pair, he has a tough time getting them to stop talking and look at the camera. Genuinely, in the midst of a hundred staid press releases and sound bites, the interview is both entertaining and illuminating. There are sections of the interview where my voice recorder fails to pick anything up except laughter from everyone in the room.
– Margaret and Johann in happier times
Quite possibly the saddest story to emerge from the resignation of Johann Lamont as New Labour in Scotland’s leader is the allegation that her longtime friend Margaret Curran played a pivotal role in her downfall:
She has been especially incensed that her former friend and colleague, Margaret Curran, now Shadow Scottish Secretary and a member of Mr Miliband’s inner circle, has been, according to Labour sources, canvassing members of the party’s ruling executive – urging them to persuade Ms Lamont to resign. Claims that she had been lobbying for Ms Lamont’s resignation have been denied by Ms Curran.
I experienced a taste of shameful schadenfreude in learning that Alex Salmond would outlast a third New Labour in Scotland leader as SNP leader. But, if true, the idea that Ms Lamont was betrayed by someone who had been a close friend and confidant for decades doesn’t fill me with pleasure, but great sadness. Betrayal figures frequently in the New Labour party – life-long co-workers, friends, colleagues, even family members have stabbed each other in the back. And even though I profoundly disagree with New Labour’s politics, even though I feel a tremendous feeling of anger towards two individuals who worked together to keep Scotland in the UK through fear and obfuscation and misrepresentation, it’s still incredibly sad to see such a thing happen to a long friendship.
Again, this is based upon “sources,” so the exact circumstances which led to Ms Lamont’s resignation are still not completely known. I would actually be somewhat relieved if it wasn’t true. But if this is true, if Margaret Curran did indeed urge New Labour’s ruling executive to persuade Johann Lamont to resign… If she’s willing to do that to her friend of over 40 years, then how can we possibly expect her to do any better for the people of Glasgow East?
Then again, this is perhaps to be expected. In 1997, Margaret Curran had some exceptionally strong words to say about Jim Murphy’s role in the ousting of seven socialist, feminist and Home Rule supporting members of Labour’s Scottish executive, particularly Rosina McRae:
My membership fees are not paid to have Jim Murphy carve up Rosina. There ought to be an an inquiry into the involvement of a paid party official in executive elections. They are supposed to be unbiased. A lot of us have worked very hard for the party and have kept our peace. We should be an organisation for strong women, committed activists, not hollow careerists. That is a political error which the party will pay for.
Fast forward 21 years, and Ms Curran’s opinion of Mr Murphy appears to have softened somewhat:, to the point where she openly backed the very man she accused of “carving up Rosina” as New Labour’s leader in Scotland:
As this campaign has progressed, it’s become increasingly clear how important this decision is for the future of the Scottish Labour Party. We need someone with ideas for how we can take Scotland forward and that’s exactly what he’s been talking about for the past five weeks.
From his pledges to put women at the heart of his leadership to his plans to overhaul our education system, his call for a 50p tax to support the poorest and his radical plan to campaign for a wage rise for up to half a million Scots, Jim has been first with the ideas about how we take Scotland forward.
Quite the change of heart – if, indeed, she has one.
“My son, for example, who went to university in England, I think I’d be uncomfortable with the thought that he’s now a foreigner.”
– Margaret Curran’s infamous contribution to Foreigner Watch, Good Morning Scotland, 25th May 2013
Andrew Neil: Let’s try and get to some hard facts. When the Government took away child benefit from better-off tax payers, you – your party – said it was “ill-thought-through, unfair, and showed that the Coalition was out of touch with hard-working families.” Is that still the case?
Margaret Curran: I do think that was unfair, and I do think they hadn’t thought it through…
AN: So you’re against it?
MC: …they got themselves into a complete mess. But what we are saying is when you get into government, and when we come in in 2015, we won’t be able to do all that we wanted to do, and things that the Government have done… what will be our priorities there, and beginning to tackle that.
AN: I’m sorry – is taking child benefit away from better-off families ill-thought-through and unfair or not?
MC: I thought it was unfair…
AN: But you’re still going to support it!
MC: … I think there’s a difference when you say, when the Government does things, that was wrong, and it was unfair and ill-thought-through. If you come into government…
AN: But you’re going to support it!
MC: …hang on a wee second! If you come into government, three or four years later, you then decide what are your priorities. Now we’ll have lots to reinstate of what the Government has done. Will child benefit for the wealthiest people be our top priority? I’m not sure about that.
AN: Well why didn’t you say that at the time?
MC: Because that was then, and –
AN: It was only eighteen months ago!
– Ms Curran’s magnificent disaster, 5th June 2013
‘Alex Salmond is playing fast and loose with the BBC. A year ago he said he would break up the BBC and set up a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation (SBC), but since then he’s said absolutely nothing about how he would do it, and what it would mean for TV viewers across Scotland. Alex Salmond can’t be trusted on the BBC and hasn’t answered some of the most basic questions over the past year. Will Scottish TV viewers be able to get all the content they currently enjoy, for free?’”
– Ms Curran apparently fails to understand the concept of the £145.50 TV license every television owner in Scotland pays each year, 22nd August 2013
“It must be his message, and his legacy, is the capacity of people to govern themselves, and make the right decisions in their own interests, where you can share democracy, you can share power among the people, but you have that innate ability. So yes we need leaders, but it is about that – the inspiration about people governing themselves, fairly and equally, that’s his legacy.“
– Ms Curran speaking about the message and legacy of Nelson Mandela, but absolutely NOT about the people of Scotland, 6th December 2013
“After Labour’s shock defeat in 2007, Margaret Curran and Sarah Boyack asked me to meet them for a coffee to pick over the whys and wherefores of why they’d lost and what to do. I spent much of that conversation being chastised for how critical I had been of the party and not what they could do to kickstart change.”
– Mandy Rhodes being quite telling, 7th November 2014
‘I was there in the Scottish Parliament when the SNP worked hand in glove with the Tories. Scots won’t forget the cosy relationship between Alex Salmond and his Tory pals to keep Scottish Labour out of office.’”
– Ms Curran confuses the Tories voting for Scottish government budgets with “keeping Scottish Labour out” – as opposed to the SNP having more MSPs than New Labour being what was “keeping Scottish Labour out,” 18th February 2015. (Isn’t that New Labour’s new thing, the idea that “the biggest party forms the government“?)
“Even Nicola Sturgeon agrees that Scots should vote Labour to make sure David Cameron’s Conservatives do not win the 2015 General Election, Margaret Curran will say today. The Shadow Scottish Secretary will make the claim in a speech to a Labour summit in Perth when she is also due to attack the SNP.”
– The Herald wittingly or unwittingly – but rather wittily – speaks the truth while relaying Ms Curran’s untruths
Ms Curran is particularly vociferous in her criticisms of the SNP, even for a New Labour politician, so it’s natural she would just make any old thing up and be reliably described as “due to attack the SNP.”
Can it be done?
Natalie McGarry was one of many high-profile campaigners during the referendum: a co-founder of Women for Independence, she campaigned for the SNP to retain its anti-NATO stance, and contested the Cowedenbeath Holyrood by-election in 2014, as well as put herself forward for selection in the 2014 European election. Time and again, she picked herself up and continued campaigning for the SNP and for independence.
Like much of Glasgow, Glasgow East is historically Labour country, but the 2008 by-election shocked the nation by returning an SNP MP with a 22.5 swing and an undeniable 1,000+ majority in John Mason. Over the three elections since the constituency’s establishment, there’s a definite pendulum effect at play:
|General Election 2005: Glasgow East|
|Liberal Democrats||David Jackson||3,665||11.8||N/A|
|Scottish Socialist||George Savage||1,096||3.5||N/A|
|Glasgow East by-election, 2008|
|Liberal Democrats||Ian Robertson||915||3.5||-8.3|
|Scottish Socialist||Frances Curran||555||2.1||-1.4|
|Scottish Green||Eileen Duke||232||0.9||N/A|
|SNP gain from Labour||Swing||22.5|
|General Election 2010: Glasgow East|
|Liberal Democrats||Kevin Ward||1,617||5.0||+1.5|
|BNP||Joe T Finnie||677||2.1||+2.1|
|Scottish Socialist||Frances Curran||454||1.4||-0.7|
So, broadly speaking, New Labour yo-yoed from around 60% to 40% back to 60%:
18,775 (60.7%) in 2005 (David Marshall)
10,912 (41.7%, -19) in 2008 (Margaret Curran)
19,797 (61.6%, +19.9) in 2010 (Margaret Curran)
While the SNP’s share has been slightly less uniform (around 20% to 45% to 25%), with its percentage loss in 2010 smaller than New Labour’s loss in 2008 – and crucially, the gain was greater than the loss:
5,268 (17%) in 2005 (Lachlan McNeill)
11,277 (43.1%, +26.1) in 2008 (John Mason)
7,957 (24.7%, -17) in 2010 (John Mason)
It’s up to speculation exactly why the fortunes of Mr Mason and Ms Curran reversed between 2008 and 2010: my thinking is a mixture between the usual “vote Labour or the Tories will get in” and possibly even personality (Mr Mason is a very outspoken Baptist who voted against equal marriage, where Ms Curran voted in favour, for example). The Scottish Greens and Socialists have presented an additional complication by putting Kim Long and Liam McLaughlin forward to contest the constituency, which threatens to split the pro-independence/anti-austerity/social democrat vote: although the two parties have never broken into four figures in Glasgow East save for the SSP’s George Savage in 2005, every vote will count in this election. It’s just as well the Conservatives, Neoliberal Democrats, and UKIP are putting forward candidates too (Andrew Morrison, Gary McLelland and Arthur Thackery respectively.)
So what’s the word on the doorsteps?
When shadow chancellor Ed Balls visited Scotland earlier this month, his location was Walker Precision Engineering in Curran’s constituency.
A party insider said: “Margaret is getting a terrible reception on the doorstep, and the more hostility she gets, the more resources she wants for a seat nobody thinks we are going to hold.”
Another Scottish Labour source said: “Margaret has always been out for herself and Jim needs to have a word with her. It will be a blow to Labour if we lose our Scottish Secretary but we can take comfort in the knowledge that the IQ of the Westminster group will rise when Margaret goes.
– Sunday Herald, 8th March 2015
Ms McGarry definitely has a mountain to climb – but the 2008 by-election combined with the general -/+20 point swing suggested by recent polls shows it is possible for the SNP to beat a significant New Labour majority in Glasgow East.
You can contact Ms Curran through all the usual channels: she has a website, a Twitter account, and a Facebook page. As ever, these platforms would provide an excellent opportunity for a polite and courteous dialogue.
Alternatively, you could contact Miss McGarry at her website, Twitter account, or Facebook page. The Campaign hub for Glasgow East (opened on Saturday 14th March by Elaine C. Smith) is at 26 Westmuir Street, Glasgow, if you want to pop in.