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She worked as a researcher at SNP headquarters from 1977 to 1979 and was a member of the left-wing 79 Group inside the SNP during the early 1980s, but avoided expulsion as she was not a member of its steering committee (future SNP leader Alex Salmond by contrast who served on the 79 Group committee was expelled, whilst Margo Mac Donald resigned from the party in protest before she could be expelled).Cunningham returned to university in 1980, graduating from the University of Edinburgh in 1982 with a Bachelor of Laws degree, followed by a Diploma in Legal Practice from the University of Aberdeen in 1983.Cunningham was born in Glasgow and spent her early years living in East Lothian and Edinburgh.
She was the Cabinet Secretary for Fair Work, Skills and Training 2014−2016 and is the Scottish National Party (SNP) Member of the Scottish Parliament for Perthshire South and Kinross-shire, having previously represented Perth 1999−2011.
Cunningham first came to prominence in 1995 when she won the bitter Perth and Kinross by-election to replace the Conservative MP, Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, who had died.
She had initially been left off the SNP's candidate shortlist over her brief relationship in the 1970s with Donald Bain, the former husband of SNP stalwart Margaret Ewing, on the grounds that the issue could prove an embarrassment to the party.
In 2000 she was elected the SNP Senior Vice-Convener (depute leader).
She became interested in politics while still a teenager and joined the SNP in 1969 as an overseas member.Cunningham graduated from the University of Western Australia in 1976 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in politics, before returning to Scotland.