IN the latest of our series of encounters in the run-up to the general election, Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy talks popularity, polls and why he keeps on smiling.
There are many emotions one might experience on encountering the leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Anger is popular at the moment, at least among those who shout abuse at him in the street. Curiousity is more appropriate for a journalist. But the trouble is that when I do meet Jim Murphy – in a cafe in his East Renfrewshire constituency – a sense of pity keeps breaking through.
He wouldn’t welcome it. Murphy seems a proud man, a man’s man, not the sort to feel sorry for himself, or to be comfortable at the thought of others feeling so. But, God, I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes (size 13) or, more to the point, inside his head right now. Labour are facing a wipe-out, or close enough, in Scotland, on his watch. “He will be feeling crushed,” a party colleague who knows him well told me. “But he will not show it.”
That last point, at least, is true. Focus group comments, published this week, saw Murphy described as a “merchant of doom” and “a bag of nerves”. Yet the man I meet could not appear more serene. Sustained by tea and an empire biscuit, he speaks quietly and calmly, and makes small jokes whenever possible. He remains unbruised by the campaign, he insists, holding out his arms for inspection.
“Is this the hardest thing I’ve ever done?” he says. “Of course not. Growing up in a housing scheme a couple of miles from here was harder than this. Living in a caravan with my mum and dad, that’s harder. Moving to South Africa during apartheid and trying to dodge [national service in] the South African army, and living in a house full of ANC supporters, that’s harder. Moving back home by myself and being out of work, and knocking on people’s doors, and asking for permission to wash people’s cars for 50 pence a time – all of that is harder. This isn’t even in my top ten.”
Our interview had been rescheduled repeatedly, and every day a new poll showed Labour losing further seats until, eventually, just before we met, Ipsos-Mori predicted the SNP winning every Scottish constituency. A yellow map. Forget “Labour Isn’t Working”, here was the new Scottish reality: Labour isn’t existing. That same day, a caller rang up a Radio Scotland phone-in to ask Murphy: “Do you think you’ll be remembered as the man who killed Labour in Scotland?”
The Labour Party got over the finishing line in the referendum and thought, ‘Right, we’re going to have a rest now.’
The question is premature. We do not yet have a body, and Murphy is determined that there won’t be one. “We’re behind in the polls but I’m not going to change my approach. I’m going to keep campaigning with a smile on my face.”
When he says things like this, it’s tempting to believe that he is masochistic, or delusional, or both. On the other hand, what would be the point of public despair? After all, one could argue that none of this is strictly his fault. The SNP surge feels like Blair’s 1997 landslide – a cultural and historic force against which any opposing strategy is useless.
Murphy benefited from that landslide, becoming an MP at the age of 29 in 1997, much to his and everyone else’s surprise. The young man who shouldn’t win, won. Now, with poetic symmetry, the middle-aged man faces the possibility of defeat in his own constituency by an inexperienced SNP candidate who, on paper, should not be able to overcome his huge majority.
In fact, Murphy says he is confident of holding East Renfrewshire, and shrugs off the idea that it might be embarrassing to rely on tactical voting by Conservative supporters who want to stop the SNP from taking the seat. A vote is a vote, even if the voter holds their nose while casting it.
One thing I find interesting, I tell Murphy, is how much some people hate him. I don’t think there’s been a politician since Margaret Thatcher who has inspired such loathing amongst certain people…
“You’re being melodramatic,” he interrupts. “You’re genuinely being melodramatic.”
No. Clearly the dislike isn’t as widespread as with Thatcher, but among a certain section of the public, there is an intense loathing that I haven’t seen directed towards any other politician.
“Every Labour politician gets that at the moment. Gordon Brown gets it. Alistair Darling gets it. I get it. Douglas Alexander gets it.”
Not in the same way as Murphy gets it. The thrown eggs. The shouting and swearing during stump speeches. The poison online. I tell him about a woman I met, recently, in Barrhead, part of his constituency. I had approached her, randomly, on the main street. She was 39, a former Labour member who is planning to vote SNP because she feels that party are now the true socialists. Par for the course for this election, but at the mention of Murphy’s name, a darkness came into her voice. “I pass him every day,” she said. “I park my car outside his house. He’s always so cheerful, saying, ‘Hello,’ and I just want to kick him in the kneecaps.”
Murphy, hearing this story, doesn’t miss a beat. “So, I should wear shinguards. Is that what you’re saying?”
No. But what is it like to be hated like that?
MURPHY is extremely disciplined, with a surfeit of energy. The evening before our morning meeting, he had been interviewed on Scotland Tonight. Afterwards, he had gone out for a run, as he does most nights, completing a 16 kilometre circuit of Glasgow’s south side and returning home at 2am. He used to listen to Johnny Cash while he ran, but now he prefers silence. “It’s a good way of clearing your head.”
This tirelessness seems an important part of his character. It’s apparent in his analysis of where Labour has gone wrong of late. “I think the biggest mistake we made was going to sleep. The Labour Party got over the finishing line in the referendum and thought, ‘Right, we’re going to have a rest now.’ Whereas the SNP and the Tories saw it as the start of something, Labour behaved as if it was the end. That was the mistake. I take my share of the blame. That isn’t a kick at any individual. We all thought, ‘Job done’. The people of Scotland wanted an answer, and the Labour Party wasn’t offering one.”
As a result, he says, “At the most passionate and febrile moment in Scottish politics, the Labour Party left politics to a wounded but confident Scottish Nationalism and the beginning of David Cameron’s assertive English nationalism. We should have been there, trying to bring the country together.”
Can he bring it together in future? Murphy is 47 and has been Scottish Labour leader for just five months. He has worked hard, thought hard, and fought hard to take back the left wing from the SNP. None of it has worked, and already there are Scottish Labour politicians calling openly, if anonymously, for his resignation in the aftermath of this election. The Glasgow South West Labour MP Ian Davidson, meanwhile, has suggested that the party should “be playing down Jim because he is not a particularly stimulating leadership figure”.
MURPHY also has a perception problem when it comes to sincerity. He has a strong personal story to tell about himself – growing up poor in Glasgow, sleeping in a drawer as a baby, and all of that – but there are many who simply sneer at this as Monty Python mawkishness. Nicola Sturgeon’s “working class girl made good” narrative plays well with the public, but Murphy’s, for whatever reason, seems to inspire cynicism.
Whether he has plans to step down following the election, or whether, indeed, he will be forced to do so, is not something Murphy would ever admit at this stage. But given that he seems almost pathologically incapable of admitting vulnerability or defeat, it would be surprising if his thoughts were not already racing ahead to Holyrood 2016.
“I know it’s tough times at the minute…” he says, “but it’s a really important time to be leading the party I love.”