The new Labour leader’s affable SNP-lite attempts don’t mean he won’t have his work cut out, writes Lesley Riddoch
Let’s be fair. Judging by TV and radio debates, Jim Murphy was the worthy winner of a Scottish Labour leadership campaign which was largely harmonious. So far, so good for Labour’s seventh leader in 15 years. He appears focused and determined – perky enough to start his first leader’s interview with a friendly rebuke to presenter Gordon Brewer for smoking outside the BBC. The watchword of Murphy’s style is clearly “affable”: he is keen not to blame ex-Labour supporters for voting Yes and equally eager to abandon the “ya boo” politics that saw previous Scottish Labour leaders oppose good ideas just because they were proposed by the SNP. His capable deputy Kezia Dugdale shares that broadly consensual outlook and belongs to a younger generation largely devoid of the bitterness and thwarted entitlement that plagued some longer-serving colleagues. Compared to previous incumbents the pair are easy on the eye and ear, they already match the SNP’s gender equal leadership team and soon – we are told – will produce a shadow version of the First Minister’s gender-equal cabinet.
On the BBC’s Sunday Politics Murphy talked of further following the SNP’s example by inviting non-party members to stand for Westminster seats. If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Nicola Sturgeon should be chuffed. Mind you, if Murphy thinks the recruitment of “civilians” will be easier for Labour than it’s proved to be for the SNP, he could come badly and publicly unstuck. Still, the hugely inflated SNP has an array of talent within its ranks for picking 2015 candidates – Scottish Labour doesn’t. Murphy’s main task as Scottish Labour leader is to make virtue out of fairly grim necessity.
“I changed my mind” – his explanation of the policy U-turn over income tax devolution – will probably suffice for this festive honeymoon period. It sounds honest, even if listening to Neil Findlay is a more probable explanation than “listening to the people of Scotland”. Murphy also needs to put clear red water between his new “socialist” persona and his former Blair, Iraq and Trident-supporting past. That may be difficult with key votes on Trident replacement due in 2016 but, equally, it will be counter-productive to throw constant brickbats from the Yes sidelines.
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Personal attacks sound defensive and demean a campaign viewed by Scottish voters as largely positive.
Of course, any Scottish Labour leader would have to eat humble pie right now. The opinion polls demand it. Not only is the SNP 20 per cent ahead for Westminster elections, but a weekend YouGov poll suggests 52 per cent would vote Yes today given the chance. It’s fair to discount some of that enthusiasm since the proposition is currently theoretical and unsullied by the scaremongering that would accompany another referendum. But this poll chimes with another held a week after the referendum and shouldn’t be lightly dismissed.
It signals the first of the big problems facing Jim Murphy.
It’s all very well aiming to become SNP-lite, but supporters who have drifted away from Labour are finding much more than policy satisfaction on “the other side”. In Alloa, for example, the Yes shop closed after the referendum, but re-opened a fortnight ago as a “Yesmas” shop, staffed by Women for Independence members. The shop contains toys and toiletries donated by members of the public so local folk on the breadline can cover the basics this Christmas. Users of the shop pay what they can into a sealed tin and the proceeds go to the local food bank. The honesty system has not been abused, motivation to volunteer is high because of the customers’ heart-warming and heart-breaking stories, and staff at a neighbouring hairdressers are so impressed, they keep keys so the shop can be accessed all day. This grassroots, self-starting activism has become fairly normal within the Yes movement now. Meetings begin with deposits of bags full of shopping for food banks. Women for Indy have speaker meetings and book clubs so members can educate themselves about land reform and other key policies. Why on earth would any left-leaning active Yes campaigner leave this opportunity for activism, camaraderie, commitment, self-improvement, practical help and real engagement for the dubious charms of Labour?
Secondly, the party’s minimalist proposals for devolution are still on the wrong side of the tracks.
This weekend’s YouGov poll found 51 per cent of Scots think the Smith Commission proposals don’t go far enough. They are unlikely to drift back to a party that clearly calculated its Home Rule stance to make sure Scottish MPs could still vote in the Commons.
Secondly, there is location, location, location. Jim Murphy should pray Alex Salmond returns (alone) to Westminster because that will bring cameras, attention and a new Scottish dimension to the Commons. But of course, an SNP landslide will probably end Murphy’s new career. If anyone thinks his London base doesn’t matter, consider this: who has been Scottish Labour’s caretaker leader since Johann Lamont resigned? In fact it’s been Anas Sarwar MP, not Jackie Baillie – but because the Dumbarton MSP faced Nicola Sturgeon every week, she was constantly in the public eye. Jim Murphy may soon find that out of sight is out of mind.
Thirdly, Murphy’s loyalty to Scotland will come under increasing scrutiny. He plans to “stand up to London” over devolved issues. But it’s precisely the reserved issues like austerity, immigration and leaving Europe that most agitate former Labour voters. Will he condemn his own leader for backing austerity? And if he thinks Labour can win the next Holyrood elections, why not stand down from Westminster before the ballot and encourage other high profile Scottish MPs like Tom Harris to follow suit? Murphy’s plan to keep both options open makes his commitment to Holyrood sound tentative.
Finally, contrary to the well-rehearsed Labour narrative, Westminster elections are no longer a two-horse race between Labour and the Conservatives. Small parties can wield great power and since Nicola Sturgeon has said she will “never, ever support a Conservative government”, a minority Labour government with SNP backing may seem like a more attractive outcome for ex-Labour voters.
It’s an uphill task for Jim Murphy. Labour must hope that keen morning joggers like it that way.
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