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7 October 2011

Margaret Curran will struggle against the SNP

The new Shadow Scotland Secretary is a dogged campaigner, but better candidates have been overlooked

By James Maxwell

Margaret Curran, MP for Glasgow East, has replaced Ann McKechin as Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland following Ed Miliband’s first front bench reshuffle as leader of the Labour Party.

Curran served in the Scottish Parliament for 12 years between 1999 and 2011, rising to national prominence in 2008 when she lost a crucial by-election to the SNP — a moment which, for many, marked the beginning of the end of Gordon Brown’s premiership.

Curran’s record as a dogged grassroots campaigner and opponent of independence ensures her appointment will be popular with Scottish Labour’s activist base, which is desperate to take on a nationalist party still riding high in the polls six months after their momentous victory in the Holyrood elections.

At the same time, however, she represents a gamble for Labour. Her history of awkward gaffes and poor debate performances could put the party at a disadvantage in the run up to the forthcoming independence referendum, as well as at the 2012 Glasgow City Council elections, which the SNP believes it can win. Further, her close association with the failures of outgoing Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray (she helped write the party’s May manifesto) will leave her exposed to nationalist accusations of incompetence, tribalism and negativity.

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So why Curran? The role of the Shadow Scotland Secretary is going to be hugely important over the coming months and years as the Unionist parties try to upset Alex Salmond’s bid to break-up Britain, yet Labour’s most talented Scots, Jim Murphy and Douglas Alexander, appear wholly reluctant to take up the challenge.

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One possible explanation for their reticence is that they know the First Minster does not poll well with woman and were as such happy to see another woman promoted to the position after McKechin. Another is that they are simply more interested in furthering their Westminster ambitions than in spending the next three years engaged in a bitter, arduous debate about Scotland’s constitutional future.

But even with Murphy and Alexander unavailable or unwilling, there were other, perhaps better equipped, candidates waiting in the wings. 30-year-old Gemma Doyle, MP for West Dumbartonshire, has shown promise since she entered parliament at the last General Election, as has Gregg McClymont, a 35-year-old former Oxford history don who represents Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (read his New Statesman profile here).

In reality, though, there is probably a more prosaic reason behind Curran’s promotion: the old Scottish Labour career structure ensures that loyal party servants are justly rewarded. Labour’s next leader in Scotland will certainly have his or her work cut out in dragging their comrades into the 21st century.