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Jim Murphy is Scottish Labour’s only hope

27 October 2014

6:06 PM

27 October 2014

6:06 PM

At the risk of intruding into someone else’s calamity, if you can’t enjoy this what can you enjoy? By this I mean, of course, Scottish Labour’s meltdown. (Suggestions the party is not actually an iced lollipop should not be taken too seriously.)

The thing to remember about Labour in Scotland is they’ve never been as popular as they like to think. They’ve only ever been the largest minority. A large and zombified minority, to be sure, but a minority nonetheless. They never – ever – spoke for a majority of Scots. They only claimed to.

They still do. That’s the astonishing thing. They are the people’s army, the political will of the Scottish people made flesh. And how dare anyone else suggest otherwise. Inconveniently, a fair few folk have dared make just that suggestion. The bastards.

It turns out that the Scottish people see these perishers swanking around proclaiming themselves the voice of the people and conclude, hang on a moment, you’re no such thing. Come off it. Pull the other one.

Increasingly, however, they ask another question: who are you? Which is why, to modestly contradict the boss, Jim Murphy is the only available, plausible, candidate to lead the Scottish Labour party into its next confrontation with a ungrateful wised-up electorate.

Say this for sunny Jim: at least some folk have heard of him. Nothing more surely demonstrated poor Johann Lamont’s failure than the fact that, three years into her so-called leadership, only half the country had any confident idea as to who she might be. Name recognition was not one of her longer suits which, considering the dwarfish nature of the other suits, is saying something.

Note too, the fact that Murphy is the only Labour figure SNP types have attacked since Johann fell on her sword. That alone should tell you something.

I fear Fraser’s post betrays a certain Westminster-centric train of thought. Labour will probably lose some of their Scottish seats next May (if they keep Falkirk, for instance, it may be time to abandon all hope once and for all). But it need not be a catastrophe for them, no matter how the polls look now. They will at least be able to try and frame the election as a Tory vs Labour contest. If, as you keep saying you do, you hate the Tories it’s best to vote Labour. Even if you don’t much like Labour.


In any case a new leader, even one chosen with indecent haste in a flagrantly undemocratic ballot, is not the man to blame if it all goes horribly wrong for Labour in Scotland next May. The man to blame for that is Ed Miliband.

So Jim Murphy has a choice. He can bet on Labour losing in May and trusting that his career – going nowhere under the present leadership – can be revived. Or he can accept that (part of) his party and (part of his) country have called and its time to salute the flag and do his duty.

Scotland might be a consolation prize for a politician who once dreamed of life on a larger stage but it is not a minor bauble and, besides, the task for a Labour leader is greater now. There is even a hint of history about it. (Granted, He made Scotland’s Fianna Fail Fianna Fail again is an unusual epitaph but, in the circumstances, it’s not the worst available.)

Holyrood 2016 is where the action really lies. Ian Smart is right to observe there’s no Holyrood-based candidate who can or will beat or even much dent Nicola Sturgeon. Nor does there seem any other plausible Westminster-based candidate.

So Murphy it is. Murphy it must be.

Those of us with little love for the lumpen swamp that’s Scottish Labour (friends excepted, of course) have other reasons to think Murphy by far the best – indeed the only good – candidate. He is a Blairite.

The left – Owen Jones, the Trots, the Greens and all the other usual suspects – think this is a problem. They would. Their answer is always to tilt to the left. But it’s a strange sort of politics that responds to being kicked off the centre-ground by running away from that centre.

Again, it cannot be said too often that Labour’s problem is less a collapse in its working-class support than in the fact it has lost the confidence of the Scottish middle-classes. It’s not, of course, quite as simple as an either/or conundrum but the fact remains that it’s the SNP that increasingly speaks for small-town, petit-bourgeois Scotland and blue collar aspirational Scotland. The kind of Middle Scotland that decides the outcome of elections. Until Labour appreciates that they’ll remain lost.

The Blairism thing matters too. Because, despite what some will tell you, Tony Blair was pretty popular in Scotland. There was a constituency for New Labour in Scotland; it’s just that, on domestic policy, we never got New Labour at Holyrood.

Even when they were in power Scottish Labour saw all these dangerous things – ideas, you know – happening in England and said we’ll no be having any of that new-fangled nonsense up here. The result? Intellectual ossification.

But anyone who thinks public service reform is necessary, moral and overdue in Scotland needs – whether we like it or not  – a reinvigorated, renewed, intellectually confident Labour party. Someone needs to challenge the SNP’s shibboleths. It can’t just be left to the Tories. On health and education, the Blair government’s record in England was something you could defend (in some places much more than that); no defence can be made of what Scottish Labour did in Scotland.

Murphy might help change that (and for as long as Miliband is around Murphy can certainly do more as a Blairite in Scotland than as a Blairite in England). He might also have some ideas for reviving Labour’s decayed local organisation and infrastructure. He has, after all, turned Eastwood from a safe Tory seat into one in which Murphy might as well run unopposed.

The idea Jim might return to Scotland is not, in any case, a recent development. It’s been whispered about for nearly 18 months.

I wrote at the weekend that Scottish Labour is the political equivalent of Rangers football club: a laughing stock trading on past glories rightly despised and mocked by all who aren’t members of the tribe. Even so, in each case the old brand has some value and, with the proper – sane – management it can be revived. In Labour’s case that means Newco Labour must also, at last, be New Labour.

UPDATE: Of course, Murphy would have to have a deputy from inside Holyrood, at least until he finagled a return to Scotland himself. There are ways and means of doing this. If Labour cannot sort that out then it’s time to pack up the tent for good. Nor does it matter much that he’s an MP right now. Another fellow – chap named Salmond, you may remember him – led the SNP from Westminster while he waited for his chance to return to Edinburgh. Didn’t seem to cripple him.


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