Joyce McMillan: Is Jim Murphy the Right man?

The new Scottish Labour leader is talking the talk, but can he walk the walk on social democracy, asks Joyce McMillan

Jim Murphy, front, with his new shadow cabinet, has links to some right-wing causes. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor
Jim Murphy, front, with his new shadow cabinet, has links to some right-wing causes. Picture: Steven Scott Taylor

WELL ho, ho, ho and a jingle of bells; because this Christmas, in Scotland, there are political Santas everywhere, promising to bring us – at last – exactly what we always wanted. For as the remarkable year of 2014 slips away, we find both Labour and the SNP – still our two largest parties at the ballot box – locked in a fierce competition as to who can be, in Jim Murphy’s words, “the best social democrats” and can bring Scotland the kind of governance we tend to believe we crave.

The new First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has of course long declared that her aim is to make Scotland a great 21st-century social democracy, and so long as the Labour Party could be relied upon to blunder about in the badlands of post-Blairite ideological confusion, it was a promise that served her and her party well – well enough to bring Scotland to the brink of independence. Now, though, St Nicola is joined on the social democratic sleigh by a new Santa figure, thin, teetotal and vegetarian, but definitely sporting a red suit and bag of goodies. For Jim Murphy, the new Scottish Labour leader, has this week declared himself not only for social democracy but for democratic socialism, delivering a series of ecstatic speeches about his blazing commitment to social justice and to an equal chance in life for every Scot.

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So what are we to make of this new force in the land, as we tremulously pin our political stockings to the mantelpiece? There’s no denying that Santa Jim has some formidable assets in his fight to win back the hearts of the Scottish people for his bruised and damaged Labour Party. Among them is the first rule of politics, that whatever goes up must eventually come down. The SNP has enjoyed an extraordinary honeymoon relationship with the Scottish electorate since it first became our party of government in 2007, culminating in a strong referendum performance, a huge surge in party membership and unprecedented post-referendum poll ratings.

Sooner or later, though, this phase in the SNP’s history must end; and an aggressive and confident Jim Murphy may, at that point, be well-placed to take advantage of any emerging sense of disillusion among voters. And if we add to the picture Jim Murphy’s obvious ambition and determination, his “captain of the football team” appeal to a whole tranche of male voters, the support he enjoys in some sections of the media and the attractiveness of his own upwardly-mobile life story to aspirational Scots everywhere, it’s clear that he holds a political hand worth playing, and will play it as if his political life depended on it –which it does.

Yet for all the new energy Jim Murphy has already brought to the Scottish Labour cause, there are handicaps he will struggle to overcome. Within his party, for example, he is an intensely divisive figure, and while bad-mouthing Murphy as a “Blairite” is a sport for left-leaning political insiders and carries little meaning for most voters, it is still difficult to imagine Murphy as the leader best-placed to rebuild Labour’s grass-roots campaigning strength in the face of the new mood of popular engagement in Scottish politics.

Then, secondly, there is the question of Jim Murphy’s undeniable links to a number of fairly right-wing causes, including his membership of the transatlantic neoconservative association the Henry Jackson Society. Once again, these allegiances are of little interest to most voters, but if the SNP can rouse itself from its current mood of profound ideological complacency, these facts should provide them with some detailed opportunities to test just how deep Jim Murphy’s commitment to social democracy really runs. It would be interesting to know, for instance, where he stands on the hugely controversial TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), which represents a real threat to democratic decision-making wherever it conflicts with corporate interests.

And, finally, there is the fact that Jim Murphy has been, and remains, a senior Westminster politician, closely associated in the public mind both with Westminster’s lavish expenses regime and with the general right-ward movement of Labour Westminster politics over the past two decades. It’s this that makes ordinary people in Labour’s heartland Scottish constituencies feel that Labour no longer speaks for them, and this that has caused Labour membership in Scotland to dwindle to its present parlous level. And in confronting this, Jim Murphy has already made the mistake most characteristic of Westminster politicians and pundits who do not really listen; he has assumed that Scottish politics is now substantially about “patriotism”, and that voters want to hear him constantly assert that he will “put Scotland first”.

For myself, though – and I think for many others who voted Yes in September – this new language of Murphy’s is several shades too exclusive and nationalistic. For many, voting Yes was not so much about “putting Scotland first” as about putting people first and trying to find a political solution that would open up an alternative to the City-driven form of neoliberal capitalism that now dominates UK politics. And that, in the end, raises the biggest question for the new Jim Murphy we have seen this week.

For the truth is that, in continuing to support the Union so unquestioningly, Jim Murphy sends out a political dog-whistle not to traditional working-class voters in Scotland’s Labour heartlands but to all the conservative forces in Scotland and the UK who yearn for a Scottish unionist leader forceful enough to push the SNP back to the margins of politics, where they think it belongs.

It’s for this reason that the satirical website the Daily Mash hit the nail so resoundingly on the head this week, when it joked that Jim Murphy had just become the leader of both Labour and the Conservatives in Scotland. And it’s this contradiction – between the language of radical social democracy he speaks, and the profound establishment conservatism of the unionist cause he represents – that may finally scupper Jim Murphy’s chances of emerging as the dominant force in Scottish politics; although if anyone has the sheer determination to try to square that circle, and to make the contradictions work for another decade or two, then Jim Murphy – lean, hungry and driven – is probably that man.


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