Double act

Written by Kate Shannon on 16 September 2014 in Inside Politics

Johann Lamont and Margaret Curran interviewed

It’s almost two weeks before the independence referendum when I meet with Lamont and Curran at Labour HQ in Glasgow - and the place is buzzing. People are bustling about the office, a number of different television screens show rolling news, while Labour staffers talk loudly into their BlackBerries, all adding to a palpable feeling of excitement. In the midst of this, and after a couple of abortive starts as people fetch coffees and take last minute calls, the two sit down with an air of relative calm.

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.

The two met when they were students at the University of Glasgow in the 1970s. Lamont was already a member of the Labour Club when Curran joined and both were active members.

Curran says: “I remember Johann when I went to the Labour Club first, she was on the committee, which was a big thing, and she was one of the funniest people I’d ever known in my life. One of the things people don’t know about Johann is that she’s hilarious. You need to watch sometimes if you get caught in her fire, you really feel it but it’s just her sense of humour. I think this is one of things which has kept our friendship going over the years, as well as sharing a lot of the same values.”

As Scottish Labour leader, Lamont is the person you see interviewed and featured most regularly in the media. She comes across as reserved, guarded and often on the defensive but in her friend’s company, you get a glimpse of a completely different woman. Curran on the other hand is a whirl of energy, she is a mix of friendly chat, which instantly puts you at ease, and strong political ideals. The two tease each other constantly, in the way only really good friends can. Lamont says: “Other people think we’ve got a strange friendship, I remember famously going to a briefing at Glasgow Airport where we bickered all the way through.”

Curran butts in: “We think it’s funny but if you don’t know us, you could think we didn’t get on.”

Lamont: “Someone said afterwards, ‘oh my goodness, those two don’t like each other’ [more laughter].”

She adds: “We come from very different backgrounds, Margaret is from an Irish migrant Catholic family, I was migrant Presbyterian from the Hebrides but actually, if you looked at our families, they have shared values. Faith was very important to them, we were both brought up with that sense of faith and of community. Family was really important as well. So in a lot of ways, although you could look at our backgrounds and think they were quite different, they brought us to the same place with a lot of the same values, which is why many of the things we talked about made sense to each other. For example, what it’s like to be brought up in a household where faith matters and your respect for faith really matters and what it meant to your childhood.”

Curran: “One of the things that struck us when we started to be friendly at university, which has kept with us and has shaped our politics, was the fact that we came from working, humble backgrounds. Neither of our families had a lot of money, Johann’s father worked at sea, and my father was a labourer and my mum was a cleaner.”

Lamont was born in Glasgow in 1957, into a Gaelic-speaking family from Tiree. She attended Woodside Secondary School and gained an MA in History and English from the University of Glasgow before going on to study for a postgraduate teaching qualification from Jordanhill College of Education. Before becoming an MSP in 1999, she worked as a teacher for 20 years, with her last post in the Education Social Work Project in the Castlemilk area of Glasgow.

Curran is first generation Scottish. Her parents moved to Scotland from Ireland in the early 1950s and Curran was brought up in the East End of Glasgow, firstly in Townhead and then in Denniston. She was elected to represent Glasgow Baillieston at the inception of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, and re-elected in 2003 and again in 2007. Before entering the Scottish Parliament, Curran was a lecturer in community education at the University of Strathclyde and also spent time as a community worker. In May 2010, she was elected as MP for Glasgow East. While neither family was politically active, they were interested in politics, which rubbed off on both women.

Lamont: “My parents would have been Labour supporters, though they weren’t Labour Party members. It says something that I didn’t join the Labour Party until I went to university. It was almost like that sort of thing was for other people. We were very lucky when we went to university that the Labour Club at that time had decided that they didn’t want to bring forward student debates and student politics; they wanted to encourage people to get involved in their local constituency parties. We’re talking about campaigning now but where I lived in Glasgow, although it was a very working-class area, was inside a marginal seat so people were real campaigners back then.”

Curran: “We got to meet a lot of very interesting people, very young, in the Labour Party.”

Lamont: “Because it was quite a big club, a lot of people would come to speak. I can remember Neil Kinnock coming, and Robin Cook was a favourite because he was a fantastic speaker. My first job in the Labour Club was assistant publicity secretary. It basically involved getting sheets of A5 paper and felt tipped pens. We would have to go around all the university buildings putting these posters up. These days they just sit with their phones!”

Curran: “Remember the Labour Club discos? [laughter] If you were a trendy young person, that wasn’t where you would want to be seen.”

Lamont: “I remember almost causing a fight because I put a pin with a cloakroom ticket on someone’s leather jacket, well, you’d have thought they were going to sue the Labour Club.”

It was at this time women’s issues were starting to come to the fore and Lamont cites her friendship with Curran as starting a lifelong interest in feminism and women’s rights.

Lamont: “When I went to university my view of the world was around the idea that life is so unfair and we need to do something about it. This was also the very point where the women’s movement was starting to become evident and I credit Margaret for making me a feminist because I moved from having a sense of injustice and inequality to thinking there were specific things which were happening to women. Margaret is one of four sisters and I learned from watching her. It was a conversation which was going on and I wasn’t particularly engaged with it until Margaret came to university and talked about these issues.

“I remember reading a book by Erin Pizzey, who later became quite a controversial figure in women’s politics, called Scream Quietly or the Neighbours Will Hear, which was about domestic abuse. There were women coming into the Labour Club, and Margaret was much closer to them than I was but I got to learn about those issues through Women’s Aid, which at that time were moving to set up a refuge. When I look back, out of our friendship came a deepening of my understanding of what politics was about.”

Curran: “We were at the beginning of that movement. I’ve got three sisters and my oldest sister, Bridget, bought me a copy of Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir when I was 15. It really changed my outlook on life, when people talk about books which have an influence on you, that was one for me. We then came into the Labour Club when a lot was happening. Our sense was that we were part of the generation which said ‘women’s issues need to be put on the political agenda’.

"Those were the years when Harriot Harman was raising childcare in parliament and getting a lot of criticism about it. We were part of that wider group of women who argued that childcare was an issue, that education needed a higher profile and that sexual violence was a serious issue too. It became quite exciting. It was about women’s representation. Johann played a significant role in this. She became chair of the party and she was very influential in that. She created a lot of change around all-women shortlists. When that was introduced, it was very controversial and received a lot of criticism. Johann led through a lot of that change in Scotland.

“There’s a quote I used recently from Hillary Clinton, she said, ‘you cannot be what you cannot see’, so we had to make the party be the party of both women and men. We had to have women leading the party, representing the party, articulating what the party needed to do.”

Lamont: “The same thing was happening in the trade union movement. People forget about when the minimum wage was first proposed. Those in the women’s movement were arguing for it because two-thirds of low paid people were women, and that was from inside the trade union movement. The argument for a national minimum wage came from the unions. It was the bringing together of women’s movement activists with the trade unions. That was a really rich time in our lives. The idea that when things change, you look at that change and think it was inevitable, nothing is inevitable unless you make and win the argument. This is one of the frustrations about the current debate. Once a gain is made, everyone thinks they agreed with it before it was made and that isn’t true. We always linked women’s representation with the politics of change.”

A lot of the independence referendum debate has centred on women’s roles and the female vote, with conversations about childcare taking centre stage.

Curran said: “In the current debate we have worked very closely with women across Britain and learned a great deal. It was a sisterhood that helped us grow as women in the party and which we are still part of today. There is as much a case for positive action now as there ever was. There are different challenges for women coming into politics today but they are still significant. We didn’t have the social media abuse we do today, we didn’t have to face what some do on the likes of Twitter. If I’d been told in my mid-20s that I would face the levels of misogyny I have faced in this campaign as a politically active woman in my middle 50s, I think I would have been truly shocked.”

So how do both women cope with this kind of online abuse? “I don’t read it anymore,” Curran says sadly.

Lamont: “I don’t read it either, it degrades the political discussion. People dismiss it and say ‘it is only a few people’ but it’s not, it’s a culture which gives permission to people at every level of society to say what they like about others in the crudest and most offensive of terms. Sometimes it pops up in the real world and people are shocked by it but it is nothing in comparison to the abuse people get online.

"Look at Clare Lally. A special adviser to the First Minister thought it was appropriate to go onto Wings Over Scotland [blog] in the first place and to use their information to tell a journalist that a young woman with a disabled child – who she has fought for, morning, noon and night since that child was born – was not a normal mother. The most unforgivable thing about it was one of the [positive] things about social media is that if you can’t get out much because of your caring responsibilities, your networks online are the equivalent of going to the pub with friends and she was denied that, simply because it was sanctioned from the very top. It creates a culture that everything is acceptable. I’m not saying that the mainstream political parties are causing that abuse but there’s a culture which says, ‘the way you deal with things is to intimidate people and to isolate them’.”

Curran: “We still need to make those arguments in Scotland. Some people think the argument has been won but it hasn’t. And it doesn’t just apply to political parties. There are decisions made in other places which affect women. I get obsessional about all-male panels, there are still far too many of them. The Everyday Sexism campaign has been really powerful, the idea of just recording what is happening. A lot of it is happening to younger women and it is quite shocking. We still need to take a role on that kind of indirect discrimination, that embedded sexism.”

Recently a furore broke out when Better Together released a television advert featuring a woman in her kitchen, talking through her thought process about why she was going to vote No in the referendum. Many people criticised the advert and branded it patronising for suggesting that women are incapable of engaging in political debate or researching the issues. It sparked national media coverage and the hashtag #patronisingBTlady was trending on Twitter. Among the spoofs and memes, there was real concern that Better Together had completely misjudged the mood and actually alienated many female voters.

So what do Curran and Lamont, as self-proclaimed feminists and passionate champions of women’s rights, think of the advert? Both look nonplussed when Holyrood mentions the reaction to the advert. Neither thought there was a problem with it or its message. 

“I thought it was OK,” said Curran, “We [wouldn’t have been] frightened to say to anyone [if we didn’t].”

Lamont: “We are on feminist alert all the time. I thought there was quite a lot of false outrage about it. When it was explained to me, what they did was take together comments made on the doorstep and put it into this woman’s mouth. It is all absolutely true, without a word of a lie, to say that I have met that woman three or four times. I would be much more condemnatory of a politics that promises people the earth when they know they have no intention of delivering it.”

Curran: “What’s been interesting about the campaign is that everybody now accepts that you need to address women. We would have had to argue for that before. We have established that and we are saying there is a women’s agenda and there is a reaction from women to certain issues and arguments. We need to understand it and engage with it. Women have a degree of influence. Women get the significance of this and that there are ramifications for other people. That’s a healthy dynamic in the debate.”

Lamont: “It is an energising debate but it is also a divisive debate. People have said to me that they’re worried that people are turning against each other. There’s a big job to be done post-September 18 to get people pulling together. As the Labour Party, we will be reaching out to those Yes voters who are asking about childcare and poverty and saying, ‘well, actually, we’ve got answers to these questions’. Politics is more than slogans and more than just black and white. There’s a richness in political choice. We want to be part of the conversation after the vote. It is part of the healing process but also about asking what it was about the debate that meant many inside and outside the bubble were talking about the same things.

"I’ve said we’ll accept a Yes result and whatever the result, we’ll reach out to yes people. Politics will never be the same again but we can’t have the Yes campaign blaming no in the event of a No vote. They have to accept if that is what is voted on, they have to take no for an answer and see how we come together to make devolution work inside the UK. Scotland has spent two and a half years on the independence question, we’re not wrestling with the big questions such as care for our elderly or the quality of education, we’re not doing any of those things, we’re simply having a theoretical argument and we need to get back to that.”

Curran: “Expectations have been raised by the debate. From my angle, we have made a very firm commitment about more powers to the Scottish Parliament and that would be one of our immediate priorities. That was a very sincere commitment we gave to the Scottish people and one we take very seriously. We’ve been accused of that just being politics but what we promised is our absolute commitment. What we can’t do is to allow people to have had their expectations raised and we don’t respond in a meaningful way. For me, it’s about jobs, education and the cost of living. People are hoping for a better future and we want that fast for people.”

Lamont: “I’m an optimist in politics, we’ve seen change and we’ve been part of creating change. We know it’s difficult but it can be done. I hate the idea we might take all that energy and put it back into grievance. The decision to create the United Kingdom was taken by a very few men with a great deal of power. If the people of Scotland vote No, then democratically, Scotland will have engaged itself and affirmed it wants to be part of the United Kingdom and I think that completely transforms the political dynamic.”

Until the independence referendum is decided, looking ahead to the General Election in 2015 is a tough call for all parties. However, Curran believes Labour has laid a good foundation. She says: “We have so many people out campaigning and because we’ve collected so much data from people, that’s a good base for the General Election campaign. I’m never presumptuous, when I was expecting my children I wouldn’t buy any baby clothes until they were born, but I’m confident that we’ve got a very good organisational plan to move on and a good political programme.

"I think there’s a bit of exasperation among people that we’re talking to them a lot but talk is all very good in politics but it is changing lives that matter. It’s about having a proper plan and vision to change people’s lives and I think when we move into the General Election phase, that’s exactly the territory we’ll be on. When we see what’s going on politically across the UK, the disarray on the right, there’s a real chance for the centre left to organise and come forward. Once we’ve settled this constitutional question, that’s a moment for Scotland and it is about saying, ‘let’s talk’ but also deliver a programme which addresses the needs of the many and not the few.”

Lamont: “At an organisational level, we’ve fought the greatest ground war we’ve ever fought. There’s a lot of talk about how much the parties are active in their communities but I know Labour is the most active party in our communities by far. The level of contact we’ve got is immense. I’ve said to people, ‘you’re not hanging up your trainers on 19 September’, we’re going to be staying there and having this conversation with people.”

When asked about the relationship between Labour north and south of the border, Lamont tells Holyrood that the idea of any separation between the two frustrates her. She adds: “Margaret is Scottish Labour to the core. We are driven by the same things but we just happen to serve our party in different places and there’s an idea that Westminster is a place, rather than a coming together of people from across the UK. We should see it not as a physical place but as a gathering of ideas.”

Curran says: “There’s something pernicious about that; the idea that because you are a representative of the UK Parliament you are somehow less Scottish. I don’t like that idea at all. I think the relationship between the Labour politicians is very good.

“I mean, Johann has waited 30 years to boss me around and she’s finally got it,” Curran laughs.

When Holyrood’s hour is up, the two are immediately back into business mode and making ready to head off into the still bustling Labour HQ to continue on the campaign trail. Summing up the interview, they are asked if there’s anything else they would like to add, either about the campaign or looking back at their history in the party and as friends.

With a smile you rarely see during interviews, Lamont added: “I would like to say that it’s been a hoot, I know that doesn’t sound very serious but it has. When you actually look back on all of it, that’s what I think. It’s been about people and friendships and relationships.”

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