Associate Profile Series – Margaret Curran

GPG delivers specialist technical advice through a core group of retained Associates who are former Ministers, Members of Parliament, senior civil servants or parliamentary staff, and academics. We have built long-lasting relationships with Associates which we seek to highlight in this series of personal profiles. This month’s Associate, Margaret Curran, is a former Member of Parliament in the House of Commons and the Scottish Parliament. In the Scottish Government, she served as a Cabinet Minister in various portfolios, including Minister for Parliament, for Housing and Planning and for Social Justice. At Westminster, she was a member of the UK Shadow Cabinet as Secretary of State for Scotland.

Why did you decide to work in politics?   

I always had an interest in politics, shaped by growing up in a working-class family in Glasgow. I saw the hardships and the injustice on a daily basis and their huge impact on peoples’ lives. But beyond that I saw, too, that good policies could help – but there weren’t many of those around.

The realities of people’s live were the things that really mattered and there seemed to be so little focus on that in conventional politics.  Joining the Labour Party was a natural step as it seemed the be the best vehicle for delivering the changes I believed in. I suppose having an interest in the processes of politics helped sustain me along the way!  

Give us a short overview of what you consider to have been a key moment in your career. What brought you where you are today?  

Just ahead of the establishment of the Scottish Parliament I helped found the Scottish Labour Women’s Caucus, an internal pressure group to increase the numbers of women as Labour candidates. We were a small group, but we connected to and marshalled a broader support in the party – and the country – not only to improve but also equalise the representation of women.  

For the first ever Scottish Parliament elections, the Scottish Labour Party introduced a mechanism to ensure 50/50 representation. There are, of course, various models to increase representation and empower women in political parties, and that effort continues. But had we and many others not engaged in that conversation and campaigned for the party to take meaningful action I don’t think I would have been an MSP or MP – nor would many other women.  

What one thing about working in politics do you wish was different?  

Politics is demanding and fast moving, and the pressures on elected representatives are not always appreciated. More space needs to be afforded for preparation and support. Sometimes that has to be ahead of elected office (there is a lot less of that that one might imagine) but also in doing the job. It isn’t enough just to elect women to positions, we want them to be of equal standing to their male counterparts and have equal power and influence in the institutions in which they serve. That means supporting them in office through a range of developmental programmes, and also changing the culture, processes, and institutions that contribute to sustaining systems of male power. 

Which aspects of GPG’s projects and values encouraged you to join the organisation?  

All of them, I guess! But for me, the most exciting is the recognition of the dynamic connection between people, political processes and governing institutions. These shape and impact each other and a detailed focus on that can create exciting change. The GPG approach considers the values, behaviours, requirements that determine the possibilities and creates avenues for change. For example, it can help parliamentarians develop their own impact, assess wider collective interests, and facilitate broader institutional change, 

Also, I would stress how much I appreciate the role of the Associate. It gives a long-term relation with the organisation and continued involvement in programmes. This enables the Associate to develop relationships, deepen their understanding, and ultimately be of more value to the partners of the programme. 

What work have you done with GPG, and which particular project with GPG stuck with you the most? 

I have been lucky to have worked on a number of GPG projects. This has involved work in Lebanon, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Sudan.  Most recently, GPG has been working with women active locally in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, encouraging them to stand, develop their work at local level, and how to impact the political process. The programme demonstrated the value of GPG’s approach – working with effective local organisations, developing local networks and relationships and connecting people and processes together. These women are working in an extremely difficult political context but are energised and creative about local work and services. It was incredibly inspiring to work with such local women leaders. 

How would you describe the impact of your work with GPG? 

It is a team effort, so it is difficult to be precise. The Associate model developed by GPG facilitates the sharing of real and empirical experience of democratic development and the practice of effective governance. It is interesting to observe the similarities across contexts, despite the different political situations and how relevant my own involvement has been. That happened recently when discussing my experience as Minister for Parliament in Bahrain or in other situations reflecting on the skills necessary for effective democratic representation. 

It also affords many opportunities for peer-to-peer learning which has been particularly rewarding and encourages reflection on the actual realities rather than just wishful thinking! 

What future do you envisage for your sector after the pandemic?  

Obviously travel stopped immediately as the pandemic spread globally. However, programmes quickly transferred online. These were surprisingly effective and indeed brought a number of advantages. Costs were reduced and discussion could be facilitated easily and swiftly. However, most people know the value of face-to-face engagement and the benefit it brings in designing and delivering programmes. So going forward, it is likely, I think, that there will be a mixture of online and face to face activities.

But the pandemic has wider global implications. It demonstrated our shared vulnerabilities as essentially “nobody is safe until everyone is safe”. On the one hand, it shows how interconnected and interdependent our world has become and the crucial role of government in responding to such crises. Work to emphasise the important role of government and good governance must continue to be a high priority because on the other hand, the pandemic is exacerbating existing inequalities, threatening the livelihoods of maybe billions. Unequal access to vaccines and the ability of rich nations to borrow cheaply to fund welfare programmes while poorer nations are left to finance debts at higher rates of interest demonstrates now more than ever that development programmes have to be a priority. We have to make sure they are a central part of the political agenda.  

Share your thoughts on a recent event or news story that caught your attention.

Alongside many others, even after decades of political activity I am stunned and shocked at the continuing levels of sexual violence against women in the UK and globally. 

I read recently about the situation in Mexico where at least 10 women and girls are murdered each day with families often left to do their own investigations amid widespread indifference by authorities. Women activists report systematic political and government failure to recognise the scale of femicide and believe it is now a question of political will.  Even though women have made political progress in recent years, the new congress has gender parity, and 7 female governors will be installed by the end of the year, profound change in political culture, institutions and priorities is also required.  

The parallels with the debate we are having in the UK is striking. We may have made some progress in improving women’s representation but the powerlessness of women across society is all too evident. Again, the emphasis of connecting people and the institutions to deliver meaningful and impactful governance is a crucial component of change. 

Which books, articles, podcasts, shows or other would you recommend anyone working in politics should read/listen to/watch?  

I don’t always share its perspective, but the Economist is good as a regular read as it keeps you up to date with current events and introduces some of the key political actors in other countries. Pod Save the World with Ben Rhodes (who was Assistant National Security Advisor with Obama) is worth listening to – they do a regular overview of international affairs from a progressive US perspective.

Of course, there is the great and always entertaining podcast For the Many from my sister GPG Associate Jacqui Smith