I had lunch with Jim Murphy yesterday. Well, I and a few dozen assorted hacks from the Scottish Parliamentary Journalists Association.
A politician eating rubber chicken with the media is a bit like throwing Christians to the lions – even for a pugnacious operator such as Mr Murphy. How did the new leader of Scottish Labour fare?
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One of my fellow journalists, from a major red top, pronounced Murphy was boring. That’s one way of looking at it. On the other hand, his team will feel content that their man survived the grilling without making any mistakes. But you’d expect that from a pro like Murphy.
In fact, Jim did have a fresh line for the press – you don’t turn up at a set media event and give them nothing. Murphy spent most of his pre-lunch speech denouncing the Scottish Government for putting too many “mums” in prison. He claimed the number of women serving custodial sentences had doubled since devolution, and that the policy of the SNP administration to build a new super prison to house them was misguided, as it would split families across Scotland.
The assembled hacks were bemused by this tack from Murphy, a hardliner on crime in the New Labour mould. They had come expecting a diatribe against the Nats. I started counting the number of times Jim talked about “mums in prison” but gave up. Of course, most folk in the room agreed with Murphy’s homily that jailing women who, for the most part, are victims themselves is pointless. His vague alternative – some sort of rehabilitation closer to their families – sounded sensible, though no hack was interested enough to demand a price tag.
There is a method in Murphy’s off-the-cuff foray into penal reform. That method comes in the form of John McTernan, Murphy’s newly appointed “chief of staff”. John turned up briefly at the start of the lunch to spy out the media land, then departed to do what chiefs of staff do.
I managed to ask him about his job title just before he disappeared. To my surprise, I got a very serious two-minute spiel. In short: John McTernan does strategy. He is there to energise the lacklustre Scottish Labour machine and keep it focused. Which explains Murphy’s decision to make mums in jail the centrepiece of his talk to a captive audience of journalists. McTernan believes elections are won by insurgent parties that promise change. He thinks incumbent governments lose elections when they are deemed too conservative and smug by the electorate – or at least have that label successfully pinned on them by the opposition. The classic way opposition parties present themselves as insurgents is to bring up a new policy initiative every day, leaving the incumbent ministers forever on the back foot. Hence if it is Tuesday, it is time to roll out something on prison reform. This has McTernan’s political fingerprints all over it.
I am not being cynical here. The SNP underestimates McTernan at its peril. He is a serious intellectual, a convinced (though right-wing) social democrat and a very experienced operator at an international level. With him in the back room, a youthful Kezia Dugdale fronting at Holyrood, and the ambitious Jim Murphy as leader, Scottish Labour has its most effective team in 15 years.
The problem for the SNP government is that it had gotten used to playing the insurgent card. After forming two administrations at Holyrood it is not so good at responding when the tables are turned. A case in point is the collapse in global oil prices. Of course, no-one in Scotland can reverse a meltdown in the petroleum market caused by Saudi Arabia and the US fracking industry playing a game of chicken, collectively pumping more oil than the world needs. The only agency in the UK that can ameliorate the short-term threat to North Sea oil is the British Treasury, which can cut industry taxes but hasn’t.
Nevertheless, the SNP government has been slow off the mark in responding publicly to the oil price collapse. Instead, Jim Murphy jumped in with a proposal for a so-called “resilience fund” to help the Aberdeen economy, and rushed off to the Granite City to gain airtime. I happen to know that Fergus Ewing, the Scottish Government minister responsible for oil, has been quietly effective in pumping money into the industry, to fill the lack of skilled workers that has dogged the sector in recent years. Solid and a good minister, no-one could call Fergus flashy. Yet this was a critical situation where the SNP government needed flash.
It needed Nicola Sturgeon to lead a high-powered industry delegation to Downing Street to demand lower taxes for the oil sector, in order to save jobs. It needed the appointment of an independent czar to reboot the Aberdeen economy. It needed the convoking of a summit of North Sea oil ministers from Scandinavia to coordinate strategy. It needed a fresh call for a permanent oil fund – something the SNP has demanded for 40 years – not Jim Murphy’s one-off policy stunt.
To beat Jim Murphy and John McTernan, the Nats have to recover their sense of being an insurgency. An insurgency against the London bankers’ oligarchy, and against both Tory and Labour austerity plans – unsurprisingly a topic ignored at yesterday’s lunch by the journalists from the pro-Union London dailies.
Murphy had one telling thing to say. He claimed to “have found my voice” in his public spat with Hackney Labour MP Dianne Abbott, who denounced Murphy for saying he would use the proceeds of a mansion tax (largely raised in London) to hire nurses in Scotland. The only coherent ideological element to Murphy’s “insurgency” is that he is championing Scottish interests against London in order to win back Labour supporters who voted Yes. He seems not to realise it yet, but Murphy’s insurgency is leading Scottish Labour out of the Union. What a delicious irony.
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