Dani Garavelli: Jim Murphy the dynamic underdog

Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy out and about on the streets of Shettleston, Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy out and about on the streets of Shettleston, Glasgow. Picture: Robert Perry
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Scottish Labour sorely needs the relentless energy that drove a boy from the schemes to seize a safe Tory seat. But can Jim Murphy lay to rest doubts over his sincerity, asks Dani Garavelli

JIM Murphy is standing outside a row of shops in Arden, the housing scheme on the outskirts of Glasgow where he grew up. He has, somewhat rashly, discarded his winter coat, but he buttons up his suit jacket against the wind which whips around his lean frame, and points out various landmarks. “That last shop – the one on the end – that’s where the only telephone was,” he says. “And that building there, behind the pub, that was the bookies. You weren’t allowed in, but I would stand at the doorway and look. There used to be a board with the odds written up and you would see place names you didn’t know: Newmarket, Epsom. It seemed glamorous.”

Jim Murphy during a kick about outside the Scottish Parliament. Picture: Jane barlow

Jim Murphy during a kick about outside the Scottish Parliament. Picture: Jane barlow

Today, Arden has been regenerated. There are still problems. Litter piles up in wasteland and here and there you spot a discarded shopping trolley. But much of the housing has been rebuilt and there is an impressive school, Ashpark Primary, with a park behind. Murphy, however, is remembering it back in the 1970s when, like many Glasgow estates, it was in urgent need of investment and he lived with his family – his mum and dad and his younger brothers Paul and Gerry – on the ground-floor flat of a four-storey block.

Back then, the square mile around his home marked the limits of his world. The only time he ventured further afield was when he went to the newly built swimming pool in affluent Eastwood – just a short romp through the woods away in real terms but, culturally, another planet. “I remember walking along the road thinking: ‘These are lovely houses.’ Less than 20 years later, I was their MP.”

The other time Murphy escaped the estate was on his newspaper round; aged just nine, he saw new houses being built on the other side of Nitshill Road and spotted a niche in the market. “I thought, ‘These people probably have a bit more money; they will need a paper boy,’ so, as each new family moved in, I knocked on their door and said: ‘Would you like a paper delivered?’ I ended up with the biggest round on the scheme.”

Weekends for the Murphy boys consisted of confession on Friday nights and football on Saturday. He played right back for Arden Villa. “My dad was the manager, which was probably the reason I was chosen. My mum was the only mum who came to watch. She’d stand and shout: ‘Get stuck in, son’.”

Later, he takes me to a muddy patch of land where his family home stood until it was knocked down three years ago. From here you can see his street really was the last one in Glasgow. He points to a tall building in the near distance. “That’s East Renfrewshire,” he says. “So close and yet the difference in life expectancy between here and there is seven years.”

Since Murphy decided to stand as leader of the Scottish Labour Party, this has been his recurring theme: that his years as a working class boy in Arden and then in apartheid South Africa bred in him a thirst for social justice that drives his politics. After fending off competition from MSPs Neil Findlay and Sarah Boyack, he upped the ante, announcing what has felt like an onslaught of new policies – an end to zero hours contracts, £125m to close the educational attainment gap, a 50p tax for top earners, more nurses funded by the mansion tax, the outlawing of gambling machines in betting shops – all aimed at tackling inequality.

These policies have raised the profile of Scottish Labour at a time when it was barely visible. But there are many people who regard Murphy’s transformation from uber Blairite to crusader for social justice with suspicion. Nationalists, angered by his 100 days tour during the independence referendum, see it as both an opportunistic re-branding and an incursion on to their turf.

Even amongst Labour supporters, there are doubts. Not about his ability – that is generally accepted – but about his sincerity. This is Scotland. Memories are long and grudges nursed. Left-wingers have not forgotten his “selling out” over the scrapping of student grants when he was president of the National Union of Students, his part in the Tony Blair/Gordon Brown conflict, and his support for the Iraq War.

But there’s more to it than that; there’s a nebulousness to his politics. Ask those who have known him a long time and some will say he blows with the wind. “Way back, when he was first campaigning in Eastwood, he would say, where do we stand on this? Are we for it or against it? That struck me as strange,” says a former west of Scotland Labour activist. “He didn’t really have a vision, it was more about being on-message. Of course, he could have changed, but if he’s fighting for social justice now, well, it’s only taken him 25 years.”

Then, there is his seemingly split personality; could this softly-spoken man who chats affably to an Asian shopkeeper in Arden about Mohammad Sarwar, really have shouted “F*** you, f*** you”, in the face of SNP rival Pete Wishart or, as Secretary of State for Scotland, have asked for a quiet moment with Alex Salmond so he could tell him face-to-face he considered him a “f***ing bully”?

Given his post-indyref transformation from megaphone-wielding antagonist for the Union to the softly-spoken man who refuses to call himself a “unionist”, it’s unsurprising there has been speculation about which is the “real” Jim Murphy.

Spending time with him last week, none of the finger-jabbing aggressiveness was in evidence. At a Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations event, Murphy gently courted the third-sector audience, while a visit to an engineering plant with shadow chancellor Ed Balls and Glasgow East MP Margaret Curran was an exercise in selfie-studded joviality.

Sitting in a Costa coffee shop the following day, neither Celtic’s exit from the Uefa Cup nor the fact he’s off chocolate for Lent seems to have dampened his mood. The ensuing walk around Arden may have been staged, but it is revealing; Murphy has a tendency towards “poor but proud”, “dignity in work”-type clichés, but, persuaded to move beyond them, he conjures up a vivid image of his childhood.

Born into an Irish Catholic family – his grandparents arrived in the late 40s/early 50s – he spent his earliest years in a two-bedroomed tenement in Nitshill with his granny, his great-granny, his parents and brother. “My great-granny used to chase me round with her walking stick while searching for her snuff. She couldn’t write or read; she signed her name with a cross,” he says. “It’s difficult to believe that’s only half a lifetime ago.”

His father Jim was in and out of employment; at one point the family upped sticks and went to Plymouth, where they lived in a caravan, before moving back up north to Arden. There, his mother Anne was a dinner lady at St Louise Primary School, where he and almost every­one else qualified for free school meals. As one of three boys, life on the scheme was easier for him than for some. Was it a case of: “Don’t mess with the Murphy brothers?” “Not quite that,” he laughs. “Maybe our bark was worse than our bite.”

They were a family who valued education – their most prized possession was a set of the Caxton encyclopedia – and Murphy was always curious about the world beyond the scheme. “This is on the flight path from London and North America,” he says. “Quite often, on a day without clouds, you would look up and see these planes. You would imagine where they were going – they weren’t stopping here – and think, ‘wow, what a world that would be’.”

Then, in 1979, as Thatcher came to power, he got his chance to travel. His father lost his job at Grangemouth and the family was forced to emigrate to South Africa, where he had found work as a pipe fitter.

The injustice of apartheid hit him as soon as he arrived when he realised the only place he could meet up with new black friends was on a dangerous, craggy beach where you couldn’t play football or swim. “I was shocked. I mean what type of world was it where all the safe places were reserved for a tiny minority of white people?”

Murphy and his brothers attended an all-white school; every Thursday they had to wear South African military uniforms and undergo training. On those days, they were expected to address their teachers by their military ranks. One day, pupils of a certain age were told to stay behind to sign up for National Service which was compulsory. Murphy refused. It took the army a year to catch up with him. But when it did he left South Africa and his family, and headed back to Scotland alone. There, he went first to Cardonald College and then to Strathclyde University.

Murphy’s decision to leave meant he didn’t see his parents from the ages of 17 to 23, when apartheid ended and he finally went back on holiday. Still, he refuses to over-state the pain of separation. “You get used to it. You enjoy the freedom, I guess,” is all he’ll say.

Hearing Murphy talk – he makes a passionate, impromptu speech about how the reconciliation process that has taken place in South Africa is a miracle that shames the rest of the world – I don’t doubt his insistence that his early influences are what drive his politics.

But what is interesting is that alongside his plea for equality of opportunity is an emphasis on hard work, self-reliance and a determination to succeed which is resonant of working-class Toryism. The conversation is spattered with phrases such as “always do your best”, “stand up for yourself” and “don’t get bullied.” Asked if he was conspicuously clever at school, he says: “I was just determined. It was just: ‘Don’t give in, the world doesn’t owe you anything, no-one owes you anything, so just keep going.’”

The image of himself as focused, driven, relentless seems to be at the core of his identity. Once you recognise that, so much else makes sense: his ascetic lifestyle – the vegetarianism, the running (he runs every night and tries to do a marathon a year) and, particularly, his teetotalism, which seem so very un-Catholic – is designed so he can function as a slick political machine. If you drink, you can lose a couple of hours a day, he says, when I ask him why he gave it up.

If this makes him sound humourless, it’s unfair. He is funny and, like many west of Scotland men, uses football as a leveller, but a disproportionate amount of his chit-chat revolves around his physical pursuits and seems designed to underline his incredible energy levels.

It wasn’t Murphy’s drive that won him Eastwood (now East Renfrewshire), the safest Tory seat in the country, in 1997, but it was his drive that allowed him to hold on to it. After nine years holding various positions in the NUS he was chosen as the party’s candidate for a constituency no-one expected him to win. But the sitting MP Allan Stewart resigned three months before the election in disgrace and Murphy was swept along in Labour’s landslide.

Though the victory was remarkable, many thought it was the worst thing that could have happened to him. “We were convinced he would lose it in the next election, but to give him credit, he worked relentlessly to consolidate his position,” says another Labour stalwart.

“There wasn’t a bar mitzvah he didn’t attend. If some people invited their neighbours round to look at their double glazing, Jim would be there. He worked to make himself known and he built up a proper constituency office.”

Murphy, 47, who is married to Claire, a primary school teacher, and has three children, says it took him several years to feel comfortable. “At the beginning I had a working class chip on my shoulder. If someone asked me where I came from I would say ‘the edge of the constituency’ and they would assume I meant Netherlee. I remember going to one of my first meetings with the police and they were saying: ‘Our problem here is the kids from Arden.’ At the end I said to him: ‘You know I am one of those Arden kids.’ I think there is too much stigma.”

As a result of the work Murphy put in, he not only held on to his seat, but increased his majority. He held on to it again in 2005 and 2010 and, as per his announcement on Friday, he will be fighting for it a fifth time in May (whether he’ll give it up when he becomes an MSP, isn’t yet known).

Murphy says the Tories are pouring money and resources into the campaign because East Renfrewshire is the only seat in the central belt they think they could win, but when we walk along Main Street in Barrhead, passers-by call out to him or wave a hand in recognition. He is quietly confident of success. His mum and dad, who now live in Dunoon, have been known to leaflet on his behalf, but his mum won’t speak to people on the doorstep in case they say horrible things about her boy.

Murphy tells me he’s working hard and reveals a punishing schedule; on Friday, before meeting me, he had already spoken at the GMB conference and he went straight from our interview to his surgery. Yesterday, he was due to spend six hours on and off canvassing in East Renfrewshire.

But while hard work might keep him his constituency, it will not, on its own, be enough to resuscitate the fortunes of Scottish Labour. Criticisms of the party in general, and of him in particular, continue to flourish.

Murphy’s Blairite past is sticking to him, despite his best efforts to shake it off and people are suspicious of his u-turns on tuition fees and policies such as the devolution of income tax powers to Holyrood.

These – combined with his call for football fans to be allowed to drink alcohol at matches, a blatantly populist policy aimed at wooing back “Glasgow man” – have been grist to the mill for people who believe Murphy is all things to all men; or that – like the dress that broke the internet – he takes on a different hue depending on who is looking at him. “I’m not that worried about labels,” he says. “I know who I am, I know what I want to achieve, and the label I want rid of for the Labour Party in Scotland is ‘loser’.”

Murphy points out, quite reasonably, that if he hadn’t been able to appeal to a cross-section of people he would never have held on to East Renfrewshire with its million-pound houses and its Whole Foods store. “In my constituency I have always had to build coalitions of voters,” he says. “In the Scottish Labour party, we don’t win by appealing to our core vote, it’s too small. My constituency is diverse. The Labour Party is and has to remain a party of wealth creators and a party that supports those who benefit from redistribution of the wealth. We can’t be one or the other.”

He says his policy change on the devolution of income tax was inspired by his experience during the indyref. “A lot of people who voted Yes weren’t nationalists, they were people who wanted change and part of that change is more powers. That’s why Gordon Brown and I spoke about it at length and I said we should go further than the Smith Commission proposals. What I am trying to get the political elite in Scotland to turn their head to is what we will do with these powers: they can’t be an ornament on a mantelpiece to be polished and admired.”

Where he is less convincing is in his view that the country is moving on from the referendum. His suggestion that, as the general election approaches, it is in people’s “rear-view” mirror suggests he doesn’t spend much time on the internet. Nor does Murphy show much insight into the way his wearing of the Scotland top or his wielding of an Irn Bru can is sometimes interpreted; it doesn’t matter that his love for football and Scotland’s other national drink is genuine, his constant flaunting of them as a badge of patriotism can seem shallow and tokenistic.

When I suggest Ed Miliband is the biggest obstacle to the party’s electoral prospects, Murphy talks about the importance of looking beyond the caricature, and asking what kind of leader you want: “When it comes to the TV debates, I think David Cameron will be smooth and Ed Miliband will be sincere,” he says.

But Murphy knows, more than anyone, the benefits of being a good showman. During our interview he engages the photographer in a light-hearted discussion of how to get your picture on the front page. He talks about the importance of using props and being animated, and jokes that Ed Balls has mastered the trick of pointing at things that aren’t there. He also shows a great –-bordering on bitchy – interest in the relative ability of his rival politicians to play up to the cameras. So, for all his charm, you do wonder how much of what he says is part of the Jim Murphy production (especially when, while perusing his Twitter account, you see him apparently tucking into an enormous bar of the chocolate he is supposed to be eschewing).

This coming Saturday he will be hoping to create a splash at the special conference where Scottish Labour will vote on the rewriting of “Clause IV” of its constitution to emphasise that, from now on, the party will represent Scotland first. The move could be seen as an admission of past failure, but it will yield plenty of publicity and you feel, as far as Murphy is concerned, that’s half the battle.

Who knows whether he can provide the answer to Scottish Labour’s problems. An Ashcroft poll earlier this month suggested a 21 per cent gap between Scottish Labour and the SNP, which, if replicated across the country, would lead to the loss of 35 of their 41 seats. But, as Murphy heads off to his surgery, his energy levels apparently undiminished, you can be sure of one thing: if he fails to halt the SNP advance, it certainly won’t be for want of trying.

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1