THE easy bit’s out of the way, then. That MP Jim Murphy would succeed in becoming Labour’s seventh Scottish leader since the birth of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 was never in any doubt.
Despite high-profile union support for the left-wing MSP Neil Findlay (the less said about his fellow MSP Sarah Boyack’s weirdly lacklustre pitch for the leadership, the better), Murphy was a cert from the moment he announced his candidacy to replace Johann Lamont.
Scottish Labour, as if it needed to be said, is a party on its knees. Murphy may not necessarily be held in the deepest affection by each and every one of those who backed him but enough recognised that he represented their only chance of halting the party’s ongoing decline.
Having become leader of his party, all that’s left for Murphy to do now is completely transform its fortunes. What could be simpler?
Murphy takes control of Scottish Labour at a point where the SNP, under new leader Nicola Sturgeon, is at an all-time high. Despite being on the losing side of the independence referendum, the Nationalists’ poll ratings have soared – suggesting that they may be on course to win a majority of Scottish seats at next year’s general election – and membership has multiplied almost fourfold to around 100,000.
It is hardly surprising that a number of Labour politicians – even among those who supported Jim Murphy – feel the challenge ahead is too great.
But those politicians should look at the SNP for clues about how their party, under Murphy’s leadership, might get back up on its feet.
We look at the SNP now and we see a slick operation built on a foundation of the strictest discipline. This wasn’t always the case.
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Before Alex Salmond returned for his second stint as Nationalist leader in 2004, his party was in the sort of chaos now engulfing Scottish Labour. Those with long memories will recall that the Nationalists then did not have a strong or appealing policy agenda. But the root of the SNP’s problems was not a lack of ideas but a lack of discipline.
In those days, a lazy journalist, short of a take for the bottom of page two, could meander through the Scottish Parliament canteen for ten minutes and emerge with a story about shocking SNP division, provided by an SNP politician with an axe to grind. I know, because I was – and still am – that journalist.
The SNP’s fortunes began to pick up when every member of the party fell into line behind Salmond who, a decade ago, had some similarities with Murphy, especially in the area of not being universally adored.
While it was always easy to get an SNP politician to brief against his or her party leadership when things were going badly (it’s not now, let me tell you; the Nat MSPs are frustratingly loyal), Labour politicians would do it even when they were winning.
The first two Holyrood elections led to Labour-run administrations where infighting was a matter of course. And not only were Labour MSPs split among themselves, a damaging turf war soon kicked off between the party’s representatives in Edinburgh and its Westminster MPs.
This was, by and large, a dispiriting exercise in one-upmanship between colleagues who should have known better. And, while they were slapping them out on the table in front of each other, the SNP was getting its act together.
Murphy will not have a hope of getting Scottish Labour back on track unless he puts an end to those North-South battles.
When Johann Lamont resigned as her party’s leader, she complained that Scottish Labour was treated as a branch office by senior colleagues in London. I’ve no doubt that is how it felt to Lamont. But this was a problem that Lamont could have tackled had she shown some muscle. Lamont allowed resentment to fester, and look where that got her. So Murphy should lay down the law to his colleagues at Westminster whenever he feels the need.
When Murphy looks at Scottish Labour’s Holyrood group, it’s not so much a lack of discipline that he’ll see (the party has hardly enough MSPs to kick off a decent spat) but a lack of spirit. The SNP’s relentless parliamentary progress has ground down the average Labour MSP. These are, for the most part, broken people.
Murphy will command their loyalty – I have heard, recently, declarations of unqualified, heartfelt support for his candidacy from people who just a few weeks before could barely utter his name without spitting – but his task is to make them (and just possibly, by extension, us) believe they could form a government.
Murphy, of course, won’t be leading the Labour fight from within Holyrood. Until he can find a seat in the Scottish Parliament, the party’s newly elected deputy Kezia Dugdale will be holding Sturgeon to account at First Minister’s Question Time. But Murphy plans to base himself in Scotland, returning only to Westminster to vote on what he considers key issues. He will have his hands on the steering wheel at all times.
After his victory yesterday, Murphy spent time with colleagues designing his new shadow cabinet. Expect him to match Sturgeon in unveiling a gender-balanced team, with likely new roles for deputy finance spokesperson Jenny Marra and shadow constitution spokesman Drew Smith.
Murphy certainly appears more focused than his predecessor ever was. He has a cockiness – which can get backs up – that she lacked and a streak of ruthlessness that would serve any politician well.
During the referendum campaign, Murphy made daily headlines as he travelled the country, delivering speeches in defence of the Union from on top of an Irn-Bru crate. He could do a lot worse than to start touring again, to go where he might not expect to be welcomed, and to ask voters simply: “What can Labour do for you?”
This would be a slow process but there is no quick fix for Labour. Jim Murphy’s just taken on one hell of a job.
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