APOLOGISING is a risky business for politicians. It can go one of two ways.When first minister elect Nicola Sturgeon said sorry to MSPs – and voters – back in 2010 after it emerged she had written to a court requesting leniency for a constituent convicted of fraud it went very well indeed. Sturgeon’s reputation was enhanced by her handling of what could have been a career-damaging mistake.
When Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, on the other hand, apologised for the Liberal Democrats’ broken promise that they would not raise university fees, it went badly. Clegg’s apology was roundly derided and a recording of it, put to music, ended up becoming a top 40 hit single.
Before apologising, a politician must consider where he or she can bear the potential humiliation of hearing their words played back, repeatedly, over a hastily composed backing track.
Jim Murphy MP yesterday officially launched his campaign to become the next leader of the Scottish Labour Party with a fulsome apology for his party’s recent performance.
He was sorry, he said, for Scottish Labour’s failure to listen to voters who rejected the party at the 2007 and 2011 Holyrood elections. He was also sorry, he added, that Scottish Labour has not been considered good enough to govern.
For the usually cocksure Murphy, it was an uncommon display of humility.
Murphy – front runner by some considerable distance in the race to replace Johann Lamont – felt he had little option but to start his campaign with an apology. Friends say that Scottish Labour’s reputation – that it’s lost its sense of purpose and takes Scottish voters for granted – demanded immediate attention.
Sources close to Murphy say that, had he failed to apologise yesterday, then his (inevitable) leadership would have been dogged by a sense that he didn’t understand the extent of Scottish Labour’s problems.
Murphy didn’t only address concerns about his party but about his own motives.
The East Renfrewshire MP’s critics (a fair number of whom are Labour colleagues) have been muttering for weeks now that he is not committed to the Scottish Parliament. Murphy, they say, is a Westminster politician who has never cared anything for devolution.
Yesterday, Murphy said that while the referendum had changed Scotland, his high-profile 100-day campaign tour of the country had changed him.
The places he visited, he said, reinforced his love of Scotland but the people he met convinced him of the need for change. Murphy wants his critics to know – or, at least, to believe – that he is fully behind enhanced devolution for Scotland.
Will Murphy’s apology work? It might just.
Not all politicians – no matter how sincere they may be – can pull off making an apology. A weakened politician can end up looking weaker still or, worse, desperate and cynical.
This was a gamble that Murphy had no choice but to make.
A poll last week revealed the extent of Scottish Labour’s woes just weeks after the party came through the independence referendum campaign on the winning side.
The survey – carried out by Ipsos Mori for STV – suggested that 52 per cent of voters would back the SNP if there were an immediate general election while only 23 per cent would vote Labour.
The implication of this poll is that the SNP would win 54 Westminster seats while Labour would take just four.
Nobody in Scottish politics, it must be said, believes that is the likely outcome of the next general election. Even among nationalist ranks, there remains scepticism that the party can completely obliterate Labour in May 2015.
But the poll result is certainly grim enough that it should focus Labour minds.
Murphy, of course, is not the sole candidate to become the next leader of the Scottish Labour party. MSPs Neil Findlay (the “leftie”) and Sarah Boyack (the “unifier”) have also launched pitches.
Findlay – who decided to stand after failing to persuade former prime minister Gordon Brown to apply for the position – said it was time for a wide-ranging debate about the way forward for the Labour Party, while Boyack said it was time for a “constructive conversation” about taking Labour forward.
Both of those candidates made the mistake of appearing to put their party before the country. The not unreasonable suspicion is that success for either would lead to yet more interminable internal party discussions about which the Scottish public has little interest.
Murphy’s apology, yesterday, may have had more than a whiff of politics about it but it was the right thing to do.
Scottish Labour Party members cannot afford to spend another blessed moment talking among themselves about where the party went wrong. Instead, they must find a way of connecting again with voters.
For the time being, the SNP has no problem talking with the electorate. Even among those who do not support the break-up of the United Kingdom, there is a sense that the Scottish nationalists understand people’s priorities.
Scottish Labour has a way to go before it can confidently say the same but Murphy appears to have a reasonable idea of how that restoration of political credibility might begin.
Murphy’s analysis of Scottish Labour’s failings yesterday was unflinching. Scots, he said, believed that his party had failed to listen to them. Who, he asked, could blame them?
Though he praised former leaders of his party in Scotland for their commitment, Murphy spoke of Labour’s lack of vision and the necessity for change.
Murphy reiterated his wish to be the next First Minister of Scotland but polls show us he has a long way to go before achieving that goal.
His apology suggests he recognises his party’s in a mess of its own making. And that is hugely important if Scottish Labour is to restore its credibility. «