Leader: History lesson for Jim Murphy

SCOTTISH Labour leader has been gaining momentum, but his party’s disheartening backstory is dragging him down

Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy with Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls at Aberdeen harbour. Picture: SWNS
Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy with Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls at Aberdeen harbour. Picture: SWNS

IN A typically perspicacious column for this newspaper recently, former SNP front-bencher Andrew Wilson assessed the start Jim Murphy had made in his tenure as the new leader of the Scottish Labour Party. Wilson cautioned Nationalist colleagues not to underestimate their new adversary, praising Murphy’s tenacity and political intelligence.

But Wilson said there was one serious doubt about Murphy’s leadership, one question mark over whether he would be successful in convincing Scots to lend Labour their support. Wilson quoted Polonius’ words to Laertes in Hamlet: “This above all: to thine own self be true,/ And it must follow, as the night the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

The insinuation was clear: Murphy was being inauthentic, backing policies and positions he would previously have dismissed on ideological grounds. Wilson’s conclusion was that the voters would recognise this and – seeing authenticity as one of the most desirable qualities in a politician – reject him and his party at the ballot box.

Murphy’s energy has indeed been impressive, with a new initiative daily. This weekend those initiatives include backing for a not-for-profit bid for the Scottish rail franchise; a requirement on fracking operators to first win a referendum within the local community; and protection for Scottish international football matches in the selling of future TV rights. His stated aim is to secure the support of 190,000 Labour voters who backed the Yes campaign during the referendum and who – according to numerous opinion polls – are now thinking of voting SNP. The most recent of these polls puts SNP support at a remarkable 52 per cent – more than twice the Labour tally. With just over three months until the General Election, Scottish Labour faces an uphill task.

Will it be hampered by what Wilson sees as Murphy’s inauthenticity?

SNP strategists say Murphy’s current and ­previous positions can be easily presented to the electorate, with an invitation for them to draw their own conclusions. They say his lack of ­political consistency will tell its own story, and voters will prefer a party and a leader with more consistency in their message.

But perhaps that would be to overestimate the amount of time or interest most voters have for politics in their otherwise busy lives, with the competing demands of family, work and social life. Do people really have a sense of Murphy’s political backstory as a Blairite fixer and eager participant in Labour’s “TBGBs” civil war? Those within the political bubble may have a fully formed view of Murphy, seeing him as a particular breed of political animal, and ­therefore see his volte face on certain Blairite nostrums as remarkable. Those outwith, who have a life, do not.

Most people take politicians at face value, here and now. They judge them on what they say in a campaign and what they promise in a manifesto. They judge politicians on their ability to shape the future, not on whether they have reshaped their past.

Murphy does not have his troubles to seek as he struggles to hold on to his party’s traditional supporters. But his political antecedents are not in the forefront of his problems.

Instead, his biggest difficulty is something over which he has no control. It is the average Scot’s disillusionment with a Labour Party that has been grudging about Scottish home rule, dourly negative about Scotland’s potential, and lacking in both style and substance.

He can try to ameliorate this with a narrative that speaks of a different kind of politics, of a patriotic Scottish Labour party with a sense of its own history.

But there is no escaping the fact that Jim ­Murphy’s biggest political headache is his own party’s recent past.