AS DEFEATS go, it ranks as a doozy, a real humdinger. Scottish Labour could barely have been more beaten.
Only the survival of Ian Murray in Edinburgh South prevented the party’s outright annihilation in Thursday’s general election. Murray, a lone Labour MP who once sat in a group of 41 sent to Westminster from Scotland, will return to the House of Commons as a living reminder of the night his party lost its political grip on a country it could once take for granted.
In any other circumstances, this would have been time to call a man with a tranquilliser dart
Now, the SNP holds 56 of 59 Westminster constituencies and Murray, the Liberal Democrats’ Alistair Carmichael, and the Conservative, David Mundell, are the sole representatives of the parties that united in the successful campaign against Scottish independence last year.
Scottish Labour was not the only party to be humiliated on polling day. The UK party, under the leadership of Ed Miliband, was thrashed by David Cameron’s Tories, while Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats suffered the sort of humiliation that might require therapy. And, for good and entertaining measure, Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader who promised to shake up Westminster, failed in his bid to defeat the Conservatives in Thanet South.
While Cameron set about designing his new cabinet (basically the same as the old one but with no sobbing Lib Dems messing up the place), those vanquished leaders did the honourable thing and resigned. Though Farage, being a rum cove, did say that he would consider reapplying for the Ukip leadership in autumn, making his an honourable holiday rather than resignation.
Miliband, Clegg, and Farage did what we expect of defeated leaders. When the public has spoken and said “bugger off”, we wish politicians to do just that. Clinging on is unseemly. When you’ve been dumped, you can’t keep asking for another chance.
By this logic, Scottish Labour’s Jim Murphy should also have resigned. The former East Renfrewshire MP, who had turned the safest Tory seat in Scotland into a Labour stronghold, led his party to a defeat which guarantees his place in political history.
Having lost his own seat and watched 39 colleagues come unstuck, Murphy was surely on the way out and, when he called a press conference for 11am on Friday, it appeared that he was to bow to (what seemed to be) the inevitable.
Instead, Murphy explained that he was staying on; out of parliament but still in charge. He took responsibility for Scottish Labour’s drubbing, he said, but he still had a job to do, Labour supporters to represent, and a 2016 Holyrood election to fight.
In any other circumstances, this would have been time to call a man with a tranquilliser dart. How could a politician who’d led his party to the brink of extinction expect to continue? In this instance, for very good reasons.
Some – including the defeated Labour MP, Ian Davidson – suggested that Murphy’s position was untenable, that he had been the cause of the problem. But to reach that conclusion, it is necessary to ignore the fact that Scottish Labour has been in crisis for almost a decade, and that its relationship with the electorate was badly damaged long before Murphy succeeded Johann Lamont last year.
The rise of the SNP has been a thing of political wonder. A party which spent decades on the fringes is now the preference of half of all Scots, a success story rooted in hard work, competence, and – above all – a compelling story that the SNP puts Scotland first.
While Labour spent years counting votes before they were cast, the nationalists seduced the Scottish mainstream. And when this strategy showed signs of paying off, first with a 2007 Holyrood election victory, then with a 2011 landslide, Labour simply didn’t know what to do.
While the SNP’s belief in Scotland seemed sincere, the Labour response appeared nothing more than chaotic. Leaders came and went quickly – Murphy is the fifth since 2007 – and voters, satisfied that the nationalists could be trusted to control the Scottish Government, saw nothing to convince them that Labour cared about anything other than winning.
Murphy’s resignation would not have helped shift this perception. It would have said to voters that the party’s concern was about its leader, not about Scotland.
Having been humiliated by the electorate, Murphy hopes to show that he understands frustration with his party, and to display the willingness to get things right. He has filled his shoes with pebbles and readies himself to make the painful walk back to relevance. There is no guarantee this will work, but what other options are available to the party?
Murphy’s critics would have us believe that he is the cause of the party’s defeat but it is difficult to identify another candidate who could have turned round Labour’s fortunes in the past five months. Rebuilding Scottish Labour – if this is to be achieved – will take a great deal longer than that. The general election result did not represent the culmination of decline. It exposed a breakdown in the relationship between voters and Labour that has existed for much longer.
Under Murphy, Scottish Labour has campaigned on the right issues: demanding a living wage; rejecting the creation of a new prison to jail even more women; holding the Scottish Government to account on falling standards of literacy and numeracy.
Where else should Murphy have taken Labour but on to this territory? Who else could have made the party’s story any more compelling?
The proportional representation voting system, used to elect 56 of Holyrood’s 129 members, will see that Murphy becomes an elected politician next year. Until then, he has no choice but to fight on. Simply, his party cannot afford yet another period of distracting introspection while the SNP continues to make strides.
Having been knocked on his arse, Jim Murphy has to get back up and keep fighting. He might never lead the party to election victory but, until a credible alternative candidate emerges, he is all they have. «