One for the watching: An interview with Michael Marra
“This says yer wan for the watchin',” the women at Michael Marra’s table said, pointing to the shiny new trophy he’d just won at Holyrood’s Garden Party and Political Awards.
“It’s a phrase I had never heard before,” the new Labour MSP tells Holyrood, “but I’m assuming it’s some kind of Glaswegian way of casting aspersions on somebody’s character. Glaswegians have a variety of ways of doing that.”
There were 42 newcomers to the parliament following May’s election, 43 if you include Douglas Ross.
Technically, any of them could have won our One To Watch award, but it was the 43-year-old Dundonian who impressed the judging panel, made up of senior MSPs, journalists, and Scotland’s two top pollsters. That’s got to be some pressure for someone who’s just in the door.
“It’s nice to get something like that. But as I said at the time, what’s the award? It’s ‘sound half-decent, but have achieved absolutely heehaw so far’.”
Anas Sarwar evidently views him as someone worth watching too, making him Labour’s education spokesman back in March before he’d even been elected.
Marra has been a member of the Labour Party since his teenage years, and before coming to Holyrood as a North East list MSP, was elected as the councillor for Lochee in 2017, the part of the city his family first settled in when they arrived from Ireland in the 1820s. He describes it as the “spiritual home” of the Marras.
A new mural of his uncle, the folk-singer who shared his name, and who died in 2012, was unveiled in the ward just days after the Holyrood vote.
His family, he adds, have always been involved in politics and trade unionism around that area of the city.
Marra’s sister, Jenny, served in the parliament for a decade between 2011 and 2021. She stood down at the last election, telling the local party that her political commitments were taking her away from her young children too often.
She was also someone who received a fair bit of abuse, particularly for her views on independence, the future of the Labour Party, and the continuing political stramash around gender recognition reforms and their implications.
I ask Marra, who has two young children, an older daughter and a grandchild, if the now famous family-unfriendliness of Holyrood, and the abuse meted out to politicians on social media, didn’t put him off standing.
“No,” he replies. “My kids are a bit older [than Jenny’s]. I wouldn’t have done this when my kids were very young. When I stood [in Dundee West] in 2015, I knew that I wasn’t going to win. That’s the reality. That doesn’t mean you don’t work as hard as you possibly can, we did, but you do it and you’re not naive about the whole thing.”
He adds: “I’m not on Facebook. I use Twitter mostly to look up what’s happening with Dundee United. I think social media generally is an echo chamber… I think, actually, social media is an utterly malignant force that is basically encouraging fascism in big parts of the world. And so I do my best to ignore that.”
Marra is, he says, comfortable in his own skin. “I don’t care what people say about me on social media. But in some respects, I probably did care what they said about my sister. And I worried about her at times, because at times things got particularly brutal.”
There were, he adds, periods when he was concerned about her safety. “I worried about what could happen to her as a result of how vicious some of the political discourse has become. I suppose you don’t really think about yourself in the same way.”
He pauses. “But I think that it’s completely insane. I mean, I don’t think becoming a politician is a reasonable thing to do.”
Why is it unreasonable?
“I suppose the rational thing to do is to think, ‘oh well how productive is the political discourse at the moment? What’s the best way of having the best life for your family and whatever else?’ Is it to go off and get a better-paid job doing something else, probably, isn’t it? But I don’t think people get into politics for rational reasons.
“Most people, the overwhelming majority of people, do it because they want to change things. They want to make things better for other people. And I think for most people it’s a pretty selfless act. So in that regard, I don’t think it conforms to a homo economicus vision of the world.”
One thing Marra knows a fair bit about is losing. As well as unsuccessfully standing for the party in 2015, he was an adviser to Iain Gray during the 2011 election, a campaign he describes as a “living hell”. A campaign maybe best remembered for perennial protester Sean Clerkin forcing the then Labour leader and his aides to take refuge in a Subway sandwich shop in Glasgow.
“I’m not sure my therapist allows me to speak about it,” Marra jokes.
It was a job, he says, that he poured his heart and soul into, and a job that took its toll.
“I used to work from six in the morning until 11 o’clock at night, and, you know, a couple of pints to get myself to sleep, and then at it again, and that was for years.
“You pour yourself into something like that and when you get the result that I think quite a lot of us always felt was probably likely to come in the end, it’s a pretty difficult situation.
“And a lot of people in terms of on your side, lose their jobs, but more importantly... your vision of where you want the country to go is set back and unfortunately, we’ve headed down that kind of cul-de-sac for the intervening decade. We’re still stuck there.”
Marra is blunt that as an opposition, there’s only so much Labour can achieve in Westminster and Holyrood.
The party, he says, needs to have a “much broader appeal” than they’ve had in the last three elections.
“The scale of that challenge electorally is huge,” he admits. You have a kind of moral vision of where you want to see the country going and persuading people of that, but there has to be a broad appeal that people actually think is realistic.
“And I think for too long now we have been both backwards looking but also unrealistic about the future. We have to sound convincing and rooted in ordinary people’s lives. For too often we just haven’t been.”
He adds: “I’ve always viewed myself as being probably on the soft left of the Labour Party. That’s my, I think, probably, intellectual, and spiritual home.
“I want to see a fundamental reset in the way that our economy works, I want to see a completely different way that people are treated in this country, I want to see a far more equal country. But I recognise within that you have to work with the grain of the people that live here. You can’t cast fantasy spells about where the world is going to go.”
The Corbyn years weren’t always easy for Marra, not so much because of the leader but who was around him.
“Jeremy Corbyn, to me, is like a monk. He has a monk-ish sensibility, kind of lives on an allotment somewhere, making jam. There was an appeal to that though, people felt like this was somebody who was outwith the traditional mainstream of politics, and there was a warm appeal about that personality. But frankly, the people that were around him were utterly toxic.
“There were people who had lived in the internal Labour Party culture wars for 30 years, and had no focus on the country. They were just basically their own fantasists.”
This all came to a head with the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s (EHRC) investigation into antisemitism in the party.
In their report, the watchdog said Labour had broken equalities law including harassment and discrimination over antisemitism.
“The day of the EHRC referral was probably my most difficult day ever having been in the Labour Party since I was a teenager,” Marra says. “A feeling of utter deep shame at where we had found ourselves and I never want to feel like that again.”
He says there have been people in Labour in recent years who don’t belong in the party.
“I hope and believe that that would be a relatively small number of people but you just have to look again at the EHRC situation. There are people who are clearly racist who are in the Labour Party, that is untenable and unacceptable.”
Labour, he says, has to be a broad church.
“It always has been and it should always be. We are a party of internal dissent, and we should continue to be so. There has to be space for people to disagree because our politics of progress will always be bringing people from different backgrounds and different places and beliefs together, and finding common ground. That’s what politics is about. It shouldn’t be narrow in one direction or the other. But neither should it be extreme.”
In May, Labour recorded their worst ever result in Scotland, down two MSPs to 22, finishing third behind the SNP and Tories. The only relief for the party was that it wasn’t worse. How does Anas Sarwar become the next first minister?
“We have to get ourselves in a situation where we can offer to the people of Scotland to form a government that can actually govern properly. I think a lot of the time at the moment that just isn’t what’s happening. It’s a responsibility that’s on us. But it’s also recognising the kind of constitutional bind that the country’s in.
“The most depressing thing about being in Parliament is sitting there watching Nicola Sturgeon and Douglas Ross feed off each other, like symbiotes who completely love the fact that they’re entirely dependent on each other.
“Scotland, I believe and hope, will turn its face towards progress again,” he adds. “And the Labour Party has to be ready to be part of that conversation when it does.”
When does he think that turning of the face is going to happen?
“I suppose the question is, what can make it happen? What could make it happen is potentially another referendum, which, in current circumstances, I think there’s almost no chance of the SNP winning because their case is so weak and getting weaker by the day.
“And then the other thing that can make it happen is people just getting so bloody fed up of declining public services, an economy that’s gone in the wrong direction, the social circumstances that they find their communities in of increasing levels of poverty, that they actually see, recognise that we’re in a cul-de-sac here.”
He doesn’t think a second referendum is likely, but the problem for Labour is that voters possibly do. During the election, prospective constituents told him they were voting Tory rather than Labour because Douglas Ross’s party was the most surefire way of stopping independence.
“The reality is in the longer run, the Tories can’t get rid of the SNP, it’s Labour that can get rid of the SNP because actually, the Tories rely on the SNP. The people of Scotland are utterly neglected in the middle of that equation.”
Much of our conversation has been about finding accommodation in really polarised issues, and so we end the interview, which can be heard in full on Politically Speaking, our weekly podcast, speaking about Lib Dem MSP’s Liam McArthur’s bid to bring in a new law to legalise assisted dying. Marra says he’ll be voting against the change in law.
“I find it difficult to see where the necessary protections for people can be accommodated within that in terms of people who see themselves or are pushed into seeing themselves as a burden to their families and society.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily about legal safeguards. It’s about how people feel. And too often in a country as unequal as ours, there’s too many people who don’t have a right to life in the first place.
“And I would rather that we focused on that.
“I recognise that there are so many people who have debilitating and terrible conditions who want this option. But I find it difficult to conceive of how the right safeguards can be put in place to protect people. I also recognise that there is a very strong religious and moral stance that it would be unacceptable… My view at the moment is that I’d be opposed to it.”
At the moment?
“I suppose it’s good that you pick that up, actually, because I don’t particularly like to be doctrinaire about any kind of such issues. When the facts change, you change your mind.”
This, he says, goes back to disagreeing cordially, having a space to disagree.
“We go back to your question about the constitution and as I said earlier, I absolutely understand why many people vote for independence. I get that. I do not believe that these people are stupid. I don’t believe that they are foolish, I don’t believe that they are immoral.
“I think that people are looking to do the best for people around them. I have a very positive view of human nature. And so you have to be open to listening to other people’s perceptions.
“It doesn’t mean you’re going to always agree. But the problem isn’t about the conclusions necessarily, our discussion is about discourse. If you treat people with contempt, then don’t be surprised when people treat you with contempt as well.”