The Arrival of Jim Murphy and Scottish Labour’s Challenge
Sunday Mail, December 14th 2014
A once impregnable organisation is in trouble and lost its way. It yearns for a now distant golden age and has continual problems of leadership and falling ratings.
The above is about Glasgow Rangers FC, but it could be equally true of Scottish Labour. Two pillars of the Scottish establishment now on hard times.
Scottish Labour yesterday elected Jim Murphy as its seventh leader in fifteen years, and Kezia Dugdale as deputy leader. That degree of change is the mark of an institution where something has gone seriously wrong.
Murphy was always the favourite to win, but he had to win convincingly and on his terms. Winning 56% isn’t a bad performance – taking over two-thirds of parliamentarians, having a near 2:1 lead in party members over his nearest challenger, and only narrowly losing trade unionists and affiliates.
Yet in the campaign Murphy’s original message of the need for change was diluted and lost, as he tacked left when Neil Findlay’s campaign found a response in Labour meetings.
The campaign and party Murphy inherits shows the uphill task he faces. First, Scottish Labour is a dwindling tribe. No official membership figures have been released for four years.
More damning, the party’s membership are aging and increasingly unrepresentative and divorced from mainstream Scotland. They pine for the olden days of Labour v. Tory, and are bitter and disorientated about the rise of the separatist SNP.
Second, Labour have grown used to treating Scotland as a ‘banker’ for Westminster, but Scottish politics post-indyref are now in a different place. The momentum is with the SNP. Saturday’s YouGov poll put Labour 20% behind the SNP for next year’s Westminster election and would see Labour reduced from 41 seats to a mere six.
Murphy faces a huge challenge leading the party into the 2015 Westminster contest. He is a talented, combative and divisive figure. He is both under-rated and dismissed by many of his opponents. He has to be careful to not let his opponents define him as they wish to do as a Blairite, pro-Iraq war, voting for tuition fees and supporting Trident.
The politics of the past matter a lot in Scotland, but Murphy has to make his own agenda. This would entail remaking Scottish Labour, and while he has made good music talking himself up as ‘the boss’ he needs to create a genuine, distinct, fully autonomous Scottish Labour Party.
None of his six predecessors managed to make much progress in this. He has to undertake this agenda while the party is in a precarious position in members, resources and votes. He has to begin by sorting out the frankly amateurish Scottish Labour bureaucracy, putting a professional team in place which champions the right priorities, rather than pursuing petty vendettas against the SNP.
After that he has to do something about Labour’s candidate selections, getting rid of some of the deadwood accidently elected in the 2011 SNP landslide. He has to draw a wider pool of talent and idealism into the party, creating a collective mission and purpose which matches the Nationalists zeal and energy.
Two immediate time lines matter in this. Murphy has to deliver Scotland for Ed Miliband and Labour next year if there to be any prospect of a Labour Government. This gives Murphy quite a lot of leeway and room for manoeuvre to do what he feels he needs to north of the border.
Then there is the terrain of post-2015 and the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections and taking on the SNP incumbents. So far in seven years of opposition Scottish Labour have shown an inability to come to terms with the realities of the SNP as a governing party. Murphy has to learn how to adapt to this, be opportunist, and recognise that Labour has to have a hunger for winning office.
Murphy has to do this coming from deep within the Labour establishment and while sitting as an MP in Westminster. Both of these hamper his ability to bring about the change he wishes to bring about, and his wider impact.
He will have to campaign for the 2015 elections while being a Westminster MP and with Kezia Dugdale deputising for him in the Scottish Parliament. Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon managed a similar balancing act in the run into 2007, but the SNP had a popular tide behind them. Murphy doesn’t.
Murphy has continually talked of his election as a ‘fresh start’ for Labour. The party has to realise that defeat and disconnection, along with its alliance with the Tories in the referendum has produced an existential crisis for the party.
While others talk of whether Murphy goes left or right, what he has to do is be populist, bold and get noticed, getting under the skin of the Nationalists, while articulating a new language for Labour. He has the mandate to try.