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The necessary case for Ian Murray as Labour’s deputy leader

17 January 2020

4:03 PM

17 January 2020

4:03 PM

Ian Murray is standing for a post last won by a Scot 88 years ago. Since its creation in 1922, the deputy leadership of the Labour Party has been filled by five Londoners, four Welshmen, three Yorkshiremen, two Lancastrians, one Cumbrian, one Plymothian and William Graham, the solitary Scot. Graham was also an Edinburgh MP, though having died in office after just four months, he may not be Murray’s desired role model.

The case for ending nine decades of Scottish exile from Labour’s number two position seems particularly strong in light of the General Election. Murray was left, as he was in 2015, the only Labour MP in Scotland; his colleagues swept away in another SNP yellow wave. If the party work to do winning back the northern and Midlands working class voters, who switched to the Tories in December, it is nothing compared to the feats required to return Scots under the red flag’s folds.

Last month, Labour recorded its lowest share of the vote (18.6 per cent) in Scotland since the December 1910 election and, in Commons seats it is now the fourth party of Scottish politics. No one called for Labour’s Holyrood leader, Richard Leonard, to stand down because no one considers him the man in charge, and no one else wants the job anyway.

In the European Parliament election, the party lost both its Scotland seats and managed a share of 9.3 per cent, only just 17,000 votes ahead of the Green Party. The 2016 Holyrood poll saw Labour lose over a third of its seats and be displaced by the Tories as the main opposition to the SNP. It is an open question whether Scottish Labour will survive the decade.

Choosing the only Labour MP Scots were willing to vote for as deputy leader would send a message that the party is serious about rebuilding its support outside of London, the inner cities and the university towns. As he said during his campaign launch speech in Edinburgh yesterday: ‘We must reach out and listen to every corner of this country and every person in our country. Our party can only win by winning support across the whole of the United Kingdom, by building a coalition of all types of people with a variety of interests.’

On Scotland, he took a direct shot at John McDonnell, saying ‘Let’s never again have a senior member of the Labour Party coming to a fringe show at the Edinburgh festival and changing our constitutional’. McDonnell did exactly that last August in a festival Q&A with Iain Dale, telling the LBC host that a Labour government would not block Nicola Sturgeon’s attempts to hold another independence referendum. The Shadow Chancellor’s reversal of Scottish Labour policy sucker-punched the party, as did previous and subsequent pronouncements from Jeremy Corbyn.

Murray’s fierce defence of devolved party branches’ autonomy might pick him up some votes from Scottish and Welsh members and their constituency parties. Across the wider party, where he is less well-known, he will have to rely on a biography with more twists than an M. Night Shyamalan movie. Raised on the Wester Hailes housing estate by a single mum after his dad died young, Murray went from chip shop potato-peeler, to pizza delivery man, to reading law at Edinburgh University aged 16, to festival programmer, to a job in finance, to dotcom entrepreneur, to refurbisher of rundown pubs and hotels. North of the border, Murray is known alternately as the fan who saved Edinburgh’s beloved Heart of Midlothian FC from liquidation and the man who turned the city’s affluent southside into the last redoubt of socialism in Scotland.

The case for Murray is that he markedly has more political and organisational experience than any of his rivals. He fought and saw off the SNP electoral Death Star in the independence referendum and a succession of general elections. He knows how to win in hostile territory and his majority is constructed by convincing Tory, Lib Dem and even SNP voters that they’d be better off with a Labour MP. The other day, a Labour-supporting friend asked me with a resigned sigh whether it was possible to get Labour to stop talking exclusively to itself, and I was reminded of the old American joke about the preacher who is asked if he believes in total-immersion baptism and replies: ‘Believe in it? Why, I’ve seen it done.’ Anyone who has seen it done by Murray knows that reaching beyond Labour’s traditional vote is not only possible — it actually works.

The most urgent part of Murray’s launch speech was the section on ‘the cancer of antisemitism in our party’ and his promise of a ‘zero-tolerance approach’ if he becomes second in command. Murray is apparently sincere about fighting Jew-hatred and he has won the endorsement of the Jewish MP Ruth Smeeth, but while his tolerance of antisemitism may be low, it is demonstrably not zero. He disapproves of it, decries it and wants to drive it out but, when it came down to it, he campaigned just like the rest of them to put an antisemitic party into power. No inspirational backstory or organisational nous can ever excuse that.

Corbynism has tainted everything and everyone who didn’t reject it outright as a parasite alien to the social democratic, internationalist and antiracist values of the Labour Party. Murray, like the rest of the PLP, instead sought an accommodation and shares culpability for the harm Labour has done to the Jewish community and the deservedly brutal verdict rendered by the electorate in December. In another timeline he might have been an ideal deputy leader but, in this one, he is at best a necessary one.


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