Andrew Whitaker: All change for Scottish Labour

Douglas Alexander could be among the sitting Labour MPs to be beaten by the SNP on 7 May. Picture: John Devlin

Douglas Alexander could be among the sitting Labour MPs to be beaten by the SNP on 7 May. Picture: John Devlin

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WITH most people predicting a drubbing for Jim Murphy’s party in May, it’s time to plan ahead, writes Andrew Whitaker.

Before his defeat at the 1979 General Election, the then Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan talked about a “sea change in politics”, stating that every 30 years: “It then does not matter what you say or what you do. There is a shift in what the public wants and what it approves of.”

No matter what you say or do. There is a shift in what the public wants and approves of

Barring divine intervention, it now appears that this could now well be the fate awaiting Labour in Scotland, which – despite a fairly impressive performance from leader Jim Murphy since his election in late 2014 – faces an inevitable electoral meltdown on 7 May, although the party is still firmly in the game in the rest of the UK.

With any electoral hammering for a party there are always high-profile casualties, most notably that of Michael Portillo at the 1997 election, when the then arrogant standard bearer of the Tory Right suffered the loss of his seat long before his reincarnation as a genial TV presenter.

If Labour loses 30 or more of its Scottish MPs to the SNP in May, some of Ed Miliband’s brightest front-benchers at Westminster –such as Gregg McClymont and Tom Greatrex, or even Douglas Alexander – could find themselves out of the Commons.

Other prominent Scottish Labour figures – such as Anas Sarwar – could also lose their seats, as could others once tipped for big things at the last election such as Pamela Nash, who was elected the UK’s youngest MP in 2010

With big Scottish Labour hitters out of parliament would Mr Murphy think about seeking to persuade such politicians to stand for election to Holyrood in 2016.

Mr Murphy will know that he has a mountain to climb to have any chance at all of overturning the SNP’s overall majority at Holyrood next year, particularly if he is left licking his wounds following a hammering on 7 May.

But the prospect of surrounding himself with allies at Holyrood and effective performers such as Mr McClymont, an Oxford history don whose grasp of the pensions brief in Mr Miliband’s shadow ministerial team is highly regarded, will be very tempting for Mr Murphy.

True, there’s the obvious obstacle of getting elected and with Labour in freefall in Scotland, with a very real prospect that unseated Labour MPs could find themselves defeated again in doomed bids to win election to Holyrood.

Mr Murphy himself faces the hurdle of securing a passage to Holyrood and the SNP would be sure to accuse Labour of treating Holyrood like an arena for its second 11, although in truth such attitudes have surely now been battered out of the party after its chastening defeats at the hands of the Nationalists.

Yet the proverb of “it’s an ill wind that blows nobody any good” could apply to Scottish Labour if the polls are even remotely accurate.

The loss of a whole swathe of seats to the SNP would, of course, be a crushing blow for the party and Mr Murphy, as would the key scalps taken by the Nationalists of senior Labour politicians.

But the silver lining for Mr Murphy would be that he could potentially improve his team at Holyrood and attempt to inject much-needed talent to the Labour benches in the Edinburgh parliament.

There’s also every possibility Mr Murphy would be able to help his favourite ex-MPs get a good place on the Labour list for the regional section of the election and avoid the highly risky strategy of going up again the SNP in a constituency.

Mr Murphy would have to be aware of the dangers of claims about a “stitch-up” for Labour’s candidate selection process, something that was a key characteristic of New Labour and which arguably played a part in sowing the seeds of the party’s ongoing crisis in Scotland, when one looks at the Blairite control freakery employed to block the then Labour MP Dennis Canavan from standing for the Scottish Parliament in the late 1990s.

In fairness, there is a real limit to what Mr Murphy can do at the moment about his party’s electoral prospects, with the SNP looking as it could be unstoppable.

As a formidable campaigner, Mr Murphy is playing things about right in terms of taking up issues raised to good effect by Ed Miliband, such as a crackdown on zero-hour contracts, a fairer tax system and cost-of-living related policies such as an energy price freeze.

Plans from Mr Murphy to have some form of public ownership for the railways in Scotland resonate with many voters, who are sick and tired of paying high fares to private companies already in receipt of lavish taxpayer subsidies.

But in the four months since Mr Murphy took over Scottish Labour, his raft of policy initiatives have been unable to stem the Nationalist tide and prevent the “sea change” Mr Callaghan talked about.

Perhaps it’s the case that Mr Murphy simply isn’t believed given his Blairite past and suspicion that his newfound support for public ownership and the redistribution of wealth are simply expediency from a chamelon-like politician.

Labour MSP Neil Findlay, one of the few politicians to have arrived in parliament after doing what many viewed as normal jobs – a teacher and bricklayer in his case – may well have made a better fist of appealing to voters in the once Labour-strongholds of Glasgow and the west of Scotland, that now seem so vulnerable to the SNP.

But Mr Murphy won the Scottish Labour leadership election convincingly and should not be judged on the outcome of a General Election just months into his leadership, with forces seemingly beyond his control at play. There may be a sense in which Mr Murphy simply has to let the now inevitable electoral hammering for Scottish Labour simply happen, while at the same time attempting to run the sharpest campaign he can.

It may be a similar situation to that of Neil Kinnock’s first election defeat in 1987, when the Tories won a majority of more than 100 seats, scarcely an improvement on the 1983 defeat despite an acclaimed and slick campaign from Labour.

Mr Murphy may have to view it all as part of a process and look to remake the party as best he can.

Although it cannot simply be down to personalities, having a strong Labour team at Holyrood, prepared to harry an SNP government, that come the 2016 election will have been in power for almost a decade, and challenge the Nationalists’ self-styled reputation for competence could be the start of such a process.

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