Tom Peterkin: Jim Murphy just fell foul of history
DESPITE the calls for his head and the catastrophic nature of Scottish Labour’s defeat at the general election, it was still something of a surprise to hear Jim Murphy announce he intends to quit as leader.
Before yesterday’s meeting of Labour’s Scottish National Executive, there had been signals from those close to Murphy that he would continue as leader if, as expected, he narrowly survived the vote of no confidence.
It was acknowledged that under normal circumstances any political leader who had presided over a defeat of last week’s proportions would have to go.
But the difference in Murphy’s case, according to his supporters, was that these momentous times represent far from normal circumstances.
The theory was that in the absence of any other obvious leadership contenders, Murphy could ride out his critics and rebuild his shattered party.
Having only been in the job for five months, Murphy deserved more time to turn around his party and was a big enough figure to take on the seemingly unstoppable SNP at next year’s Scottish election.
He himself appeared defiant. In a bullish speech at the election count, Murphy indicated that he intended to stay despite the humiliation of losing his East Renfrewshire seat.
But just over a week later, he had come to the conclusion that it was just not credible for him to continue, having been at the helm during Scottish Labour’s collapse.
When he first became leader, Murphy was a breath of fresh air. A blizzard of policy announcements followed his election. He was praised for his energetic approach. His gift for publicity appeared to inject some much-needed drive following Johann Lamont’s stewardship of the party.
His promises to overhaul the education system to help more under-privileged children and use mansion tax cash to pay for nurses grabbed column inches.
But in the end, none of this was enough at a time when Scotland stands at a remarkable period in her political history.
Ultimately, Murphy was powerless to prevent the post-referendum surge to the SNP. With voters rejecting Ed Miliband as a suitable prime minister, Labour was swamped at the polls.
Murphy’s prominence in the referendum, where he put in a big shift for Better Together, doubtless also contributed to his downfall.
His tour of Scotland atop an Irn-Bru crate antagonised Yes voters – making it difficult for Scottish Labour to win back traditional support which has drifted to the SNP.
Having been part of a Labour party that suffered from a lame duck UK leader, Murphy reluctantly concluded that he would also be seen as a limping water fowl.
For a politician as ambitious as Murphy, it must have been a bitter moment when he accepted he must go.
His final month in office will see him put forward his own ideas for transforming the party – including his recommendation that a one-member-one-vote system should be used to choose the next leader.
That’s all very well, but the harsh truth for Labour is that by whatever means the next leader is selected, Murphy’s departure makes his or her task incredibly challenging.
With the SNP in an almost unassailable position, Murphy’s replacement is already looking down the barrel of election defeat next year.