Leader: Tough task for Jim Murphy

Jim Murphy has to bring Scottish Labour back from the brink. Picture: John Devlin
Jim Murphy has to bring Scottish Labour back from the brink. Picture: John Devlin
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THE scale of the task facing new Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy is hard to overestimate. A YouGov poll published yesterday shows Scottish Labour trailing the SNP by 20 percentage points in Westminster voting intentions.

This would produce a rout of Scottish Labour MPs, and seriously undermine Ed Miliband’s chances of replacing David Cameron in Downing Street. The stakes for Murphy as he takes control of the dysfunctional Scottish Labour party are therefore giddyingly high. In popular terminology, “Murphy’s Law” is an old adage that dictates that whatever can go wrong will go wrong. Labour will be praying that Jim Murphy can defy his namesake in the run up to the general election on 7 May, which will be a defining test of the new leader’s political acumen and campaigning skill.

Significantly, the YouGov poll gives a snapshot of Scots’ verdict on the Smith Commission, with fully 51 per cent saying it does not go far enough in devolving more responsibility to the Scottish Parliament. The Smith Agreement is a substantial step forward for Holyrood, and the full significance of some of the powers – particularly on welfare – is not yet fully appreciated. But the impression persists that Labour had to be dragged to this point and that its default position is one that is wary of trusting Scots with a wide array of fiscal levers to control their own financial affairs. If it is not already clear, Murphy will soon come to realise that the Smith Commission was a wasted opportunity for Labour to deliver to a sceptical electorate an unmistakable message about the party’s faith in self-determination within a more federal UK.

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Murphy has shown himself willing to slough off some long-held but now inconvenient political attitudes to fit the job requirement for Scottish Labour leader in the current challenging circumstances. But he still has to convince voters of his sincerity as – for example – a strong advocate of home rule and a believer in the use of income tax to fleece the rich. His powers as a communicator are not, however, in doubt. Already the tone he is keen to project is clear: a recognisably traditional Labour message on social justice and inequality of opportunity. An old song, sung with new vigour. What Murphy may be able to bring to the table is some New Labour flexibility in the means of delivering social change. It will help him that the election ahead is one that pitches Labour against the Tories, and is not, primarily, a tussle between Labour and the SNP. What remains to be seen is whether the recent Scottish habit of backing Labour for Westminster while supporting an SNP government at Holyrood will be perpetuated.

In this challenge, Murphy will be assisted by an SNP which has shown an uncharacteristic lack of discipline in managing expectations about the outcome of next May’s vote. The SNP’s failure to play down predictions by pollsters that the party will “win” the election are a classic hostage to fortune. Failure to deliver such a victory will result in any advance – even a considerable one – being painted as a disappointment for Nicola Sturgeon on her first electoral outing as party leader. One characteristic of the SNP under Alex Salmond was that the party aimed audaciously high, and often – as in 2007 and 2011 – realised those high hopes. But as Salmond found on 18 September, it is a rare gambler who collects on every long-odds bet. Despite Salmond’s departure for the green benches of Westminster, does this high-stakes leadership style still hold sway with his successor?

The SNP’s poor expectation management is, therefore, Jim Murphy’s lifeline. He has less than five months to deliver a Scottish Labour vote next May that will demonstrate that rumours of the party’s death have been exaggerated. Then the real contest, for the job of first minister of Scotland, can begin in earnest.

Cheap fuel may yet carry a high price

ANYONE who has filled a car with petrol or ­diesel and watched the cost in pounds and pence scroll inexorably upwards on the display will heartily welcome the fall in pump prices now expected to follow the dramatic collapse in the price of oil.

Low fuel prices will cheer business too, considerably reducing the transport costs involved in the production and delivery of consumer goods, as well as food and drink. But the low oil price – on Friday it fell beneath $60 a barrel for the first time in five years – will have other, less welcome consequences. Analysts now predict that low-cost fossil fuels will price renewable sources out of the energy market, slowing – some say halting – the move to green energy.

The reasons behind the oil-price fall are complex, and include an element of commercial brinkmanship by Opec as it faces the threat to its supremacy posed by cheap American shale gas and shale oil.

By keeping the oil price low Opec hopes to slow down new shale exploitation by making it less economical. Another contributory factor to the low price is that the accelerating demand for oil that we have seen over the past century ­appears to be slowing down. Partly, this is a ­consequence of faltering growth in Bric countries, especially China and India.

But analysts also acknowledge the impact of moves in the west towards energy conservation, manifesting itself in greater use of renewable sources as well as more fuel-efficient vehicles.

The green revolution, it seems, is beginning to make its presence felt. The risk now is the low oil price that has partly resulted from this revolution, may itself work against this revolution continuing. The public subsidy for every kilowatt of energy from renewable sources will ­be harder to justify as cheap fossil fuels start trading at half the price they were a year ago.

Analysts predict the low oil price could last for as long as two years as the oil-versus-shale battle plays itself out. Win-lose calculations in this ­scenario are further complicated here in ­Scotland by concerns low-cost oil could make the next wave of North Sea exploration uneconomical, with the potential loss of tens of ­thousands of jobs. Low-price oil changes the world we live in, and we are only beginning to come to terms with its consequences.

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