Getting to know you: Jenny Marra
Okay, so thinking back, what was your first day as an MSP like?
I’d been around politics quite a long time, so although I’d never been elected, I think I had a fair idea of what to expect. What did surprise me, I think, when I got into the chamber – I’d never been in the chamber or the public gallery of the Scottish Parliament before – and starting to take part in the debates, I was really struck by the rhetoric from the SNP and how it made me feel, you know, this narrative about Scotland and Scottish exceptionalism. It made me feel really uncomfortable. And that’s, I suppose, my abiding memory from my first few weeks in parliament, that feeling.
What’s been the highlight of being an MSP?
Without a doubt serving people in my home city of Dundee. I still feel it every day. There’s no greater privilege than to speak on their behalf, and try and push forward change on their behalf as well. I think one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done is my surgery because people come to see a politician when they’re really at their wits’ end. Some of them have been through years of process, whether it’s the legal system or battling the NHS or some of the big bureaucracies that we have in society, and they really can’t find a way through, and they come to you. And there’s moments when I’ve cried with constituents in my surgery and where we’ve had long, difficult conversations. And I think that’s the bit I’ve enjoyed most about it, really trying to meet people as they are and to try and really identify what’s wrong and how I can help.
What’s been your proudest moment in your time in parliament?
I think when the trafficking bill passed. That was on the 1 October 2015, and the government had adopted the bill, basically because I think the amount of support it had politically, they didn’t really have much option. It was a good bill. I didn’t write it. I can say that because I didn’t write it. A very clever guy wrote it for me. But yeah, I think that was a proud moment, because it had really come from very little and started raising the issue of trafficking into Scotland and around Scotland.
Have you made any friendships across party lines that would surprise people?
I don’t know how other members from other parties see this, [but] I feel I do get on well with people from other parties. I have a lot of affection and a close friendship with Ruth Davidson. I think there are some women, especially in the SNP, I get on very well with. I think also sometimes when you come into parliament and you’re the same age, there’s maybe a sort of shared camaraderie. So I would say Gail Ross would be somebody I felt I could speak to if I wanted to, and there’s maybe something about being female and that being around the same age and some of the same challenges around juggling politics with childcare and things.
But I think actually, it’s important to have friendships across parties … I think it is important to have your own viewpoints, but to understand where other people are coming from … politics is always the art of the possible and looking for the compromise that’s going to work. And so I think that is really important.
So, is there anyone you’ve fallen out with or, feel you need to avoid?
Probably not that I would admit. I mean, I suppose within your own political group, you’ll always have...
You’re more likely to fall out with your supposed allies?
Yeah, I think so … I think the thing about politics, and one of the things I’ll miss, is you have to have very frank conversations with people and that often happens especially within your own party. But that’s necessary because these are serious issues we’re dealing with. You can’t just mess around the edges of this stuff. You’ve got to get to the guts of it. You’ve got to have frank and serious conversations with people. And, you know, politics moves at such a pace that we can do that and then the next day, it’s like you’ve moved on, because politics does move at a pace and you’ve got to move on. I think the pace of it, I will miss. I think the importance of it and the issues we deal with in people’s lives, that I will miss.
And who will you miss most?
I think my colleagues on the Labour benches. There’s some superb human beings in our group and, you know, it maybe looks to the outside world at the moment as if we’re all desperately unhappy, but that’s not true. I think some of the problems Scottish Labour is grappling with at the moment, centre left and left-wing parties across the globe are grappling with because of the effects of globalisation, technology, insecure work, public health. These are all issues that left-wing parties are [finding it] particularly difficult to get solutions for because our whole premise is the importance of work and the dignity of work and how that really provides a platform for families to grow and thrive. So that’s one of the reasons I think Scottish Labour, to the outside world, looks like it’s very difficult at the moment, but you look at some of the people on our benches, Johann Lamont, Iain Gray, Jackie Baillie, Anas Sarwar, Richard Leonard himself, you know, really deeply committed people with really strong values and super people also to spend time with and be with. That’s what I’ll miss, I’ll miss my Labour colleagues in the parliament.
What’s been your best night out in Margo’s [Scottish Parliament bar] and who was it with?
I think the nights out I’ll miss most are when me and a few Labour colleagues were able to go for a nice meal on a Wednesday night. I think especially because I don’t go out very much anymore with young children, that was always the highlight of the week for me.
Is there anything you wish you’d done differently as an MSP?
Probably being even more focused on what you want to achieve. I would probably look to increase that … [And] I think a lot of the frustration with politics, sometimes you want to speak your mind or take a stand on certain issues, but it needs to be weighed up with the fact that you’re part of a collective group, the party and the parliamentary group. Sometimes if you take a stand that’s way outwith an agreed position, it’s not just about principle, or not sticking by the principle, it’s also about do you let colleagues down, because, as I was saying earlier, the art of politics is all about the art of compromise, [the] possible, and so it’s never going to be exactly as you want it. I think for all politicians, it’s probably a balance between speaking out and sticking to exactly what you think, or think’s best, but also being part of a collective… it’s always a challenge and if I was going back, that’s something I would be reflecting on maybe as issues arise.
And what’s the best bit of advice you have that you would pass on to new MSPs?
I think, don’t be scared to say what you think. When you’re in the room, you’re elected to be in the room and to make a difference.