Brian Monteith: Miliband and Murphy can yet deliver

Westminster heavyweight, Jim Murphy may yet sort out Scotland. Picture: Getty
Westminster heavyweight, Jim Murphy may yet sort out Scotland. Picture: Getty
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Labour are reeling and lurching from one crisis to another but all is not yet lost for the present regime, writes Brian Monteith

IF THERE is a word I would use to describe the Labour Party’s behaviour in the last few months it is “panic”. When that YouGov poll putting the Yes campaign ahead in the referendum came out, Labour sages in London and Glasgow panicked. They should have known better, but instead some offered commitments that were not their own to deliver to a timescale that was not their own to set.

That it was a panic on Labour’s part could not be denied, for the party’s part in making vows and pledges followed the watering down of its first draft report of how the Scottish Parliament could be made more accountable and responsible.

That this panic was unnecessary was illustrated by polling subsequent to the referendum that showed only 2 per cent of those who voted changed their minds in the last week, and of those a third of them changed to vote Yes. The idea that the panic-induced “Vow” was what won the referendum is nothing more than a myth, but it suits the losers to blame anyone but their own campaign errors.

Now we are witnessing Labour panicking again, this time over its leadership crisis, or what has this week become the leadership crises.

The departure of Johann Lamont has put Labour into a tailspin from which it cannot begin to pull out of until it elects her replacement. Unfortunately for Labour that will take some time, and until then the SNP is able to dominate the Scottish political scene untested – except for sallies by the Scottish Conservatives, who for all the merit of their new discussion paper on education will not figure in the dialectic between Scotland’s two left-of-centre parties.

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Everyone knows that in the spectrum of leadership material Labour is very weak in Holyrood – that’s why it ended up with Johann Lamont after all, a political pugilist good at the political stair-heid rammy but unable to engage the public beyond her narrowing core vote.

Some of its new intake from 2011 offer hope for the future, but does Neil Findlay yet have the charisma or strength of personality to take on and defeat Nicola Sturgeon – who although still relatively young has been in the Scottish Parliament since its inception 15 years ago? Being good at machine politics is not enough if your Olivetti has been superseded by the AppleMac.

Sarah Boyack has been there as long as Ms Sturgeon but surely if she is the answer then she should have been the leader after Jack McConnell or even Iain Gray. What’s been keeping her? Dynamism and ruthless ambition are two requirements of leadership and these appear to be absent from a polite politician who has hardly set the heather on fire.

That leaves Jim Murphy, who at least has a recognisable presence, showed himself willing to challenge the SNP head-on during the referendum, and with his 17 years at Westminster will know what to do, when to do it and how. In the SNP’s eyes he has baggage, but Murphy can defend himself, his real problem is he is currently in the wrong parliament – and he needs to be able to resolve that.

So when polls come out showing Labour’s chances of holding on to most of its 41 Scottish Members of Parliament at the General Election next May are slim, how is Jim Murphy to get elected to Holyrood a year later, when Labour seats could be at a premium?

Those polls, and the uncertainty proffered by Labour’s Scottish leadership election, have combined to result in further panic as some backbench MPs at Westminster now realise that they may not win a majority next year, and can even see the possibility of coming second behind Cameron’s Conservatives – with both looking to find partners to make a coalition. The resulting behind-the-scenes gossiping, that is reputed to include shadow cabinet members who have not yet found the guts to break cover, is making the leadership of Ed Miliband the story. And we all know what happens when people become the story rather than the message they are meant to be selling – they exit stage left.

The pressure is now mounting and the publication of further polls that show Miliband’s popularity rating at -55, worse than Nick Clegg’s at -54 while Cameron’s is -14. This only serves to feed the panic. How can Labour begin to turn the corner and believe in itself again?

Later this week we have the Rochester & Strood by-election with the Conservatives likely to lose to the UK Independence Party, with Labour behind them, in a seat it held between 1997 and 2010. What will a probable third place tell us about the Labour vote? At one point in the campaign it was being suggested Labour could win. Not anymore.

I would offer four reasons why Labour politicians should hold their nerve. Firstly, once Scottish Labour elects its leader it can turn to fight its real enemy, the SNP, and expect some degree of recovery. Secondly, the publication of the Smith Commission proposals will move along the debate about the delivery of those panicky pledges, giving Labour the opportunity to come off the back foot. Thirdly, the alternatives to Miliband make no difference to the polling outcomes. It would be extremely difficult to try and change to another Labour politician this late in the election cycle. It’s not as if there’s a popular Labour figure waiting in the wings. Many are tainted with the causes of the economic catastrophe we are still trying to pull out of and others have no profile and not enough time left to develop one. Fourthly, voting SNP risks creating a Tory government. This will concentrate the minds of Scots who want Labour back in Downing Street.

Although the May general election is less than six months off, in the sense of what can still happen we are a long way from that day. Of course it could actually still get worse, the panickers could be right; Jim Murphy could lose, Scottish Labour could then struggle to make any impact and Miliband would look more and more like a lame-duck leader.

The party’s destiny can therefore be in its own hands; how it faces up to the SNP and comes to terms with the consequences of devolution is what can save Miliband and make 2015 his year.

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