HIS battles for Scotland in Westminster make the Eastwood MP the strongest candidate to lead Scottish Labour to victory, says John McTernan.
Ladies and gentleman, Jim Murphy has entered the building. The long-anticipated moment has arrived – a hugely experienced and talented Scottish politician has decided that his future lies in the Scottish Parliament, not the House of Commons. It’s a moment. The moment that Scottish Labour finally got serious about its future, and – more importantly – about Scotland’s.
Here’s what you need to know about Jim – and that’s the first thing actually: he’s a “first name” politician. Since 1999, all the successful politicians in Holyrood have been known by their first names. Think about it – Donald, Henry, Jack, Wendy, Alex, Nicola and Margo. Why is this so important? Perhaps there’s an element of intimacy needed in the relationship with political leaders in a small country. And maybe a wee touch of a Scottish meritocratic democracy. This is a critical test for success – and Jim has already passed it. It’s not sufficient for ultimate victory, but it’s necessary.
Second, he knows Scotland intimately. There was his 100-day tour where he saw Scotland’s towns, cities and villages. And its people – from the Oban “gull whisperer” who summoned gulls to spatter Jim and his audience to the be-jimmy-wigged, self-styled “William Wallace” who jumped on Jim’s Irn-Bru crates and whispered “Traitor! Traitor!” into his ears all through one street-corner meeting.
But it’s not just the geographical breadth he understands, it’s the social and economic breadth too. As Secretary of State for Scotland, he had to be Scotland’s man in the Cabinet – making the case for the country at every turn – rather than being the Cabinet’s man in Scotland. He had to know all devolved policies inside out and most reserved ones too. Leading a trade mission of Scottish SMEs to Shanghai, he took a side trip to Beijing to argue the case for pandas coming to Edinburgh Zoo. When John Swinney wanted extra borrowing powers to finance the Forth Road Crossing, Murphy persuaded Yvette Cooper, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to find £1bn for the Scottish Government. And he was central to organising the Pope’s visit to Scotland.
This all leads to the third point, no-one has come to the Scottish Parliament with so much ministerial experience. Not just at Cabinet rank. Murphy was Minister for Europe, shepherding the Lisbon Treaty through the Commons winning plaudits even from the Tory opposition for his skill in winning the arguments on the floor of the House. And he was Minister for Work when the first ideas for devolving key elements of welfare to work to councils in cities across the UK were first developed. It’s worth remembering that Donald Dewar only had a couple of years in government, most of his experience was in opposition which is in equal part character-building and soul-destroying. Henry McLeish was only a junior minister and Alex Salmond an opposition back-bencher.
Does this matter? Well it is an iron rule of politics that office finds you out. Some politicians who excel in opposition struggle as ministers – it turns out they flattered to deceive. There’s also no doubt that, in Howling Wolf’s phrase, the floor of the House of Commons is a “killing floor”. Departmental questions are sink or swim. We often forget how much Salmond’s skills were honed in Westminster.
Fourthly, Jim’s a proven winner. Single-handedly he has turned East Renfrewshire from one of the safest Tory seats in Scotland into a safe Labour seat. To do this he has created what many would term the classic “New Labour” coalition – middle-class voters (is there anywhere more Middle Scotland than Eastwood?) together with traditional working-class voters from Barrhead. He pulled off the same trick in 2010 when he ran the General Election campaign in Scotland – right down to writing the manifesto. The result? A 3 per cent swing to Labour while in the rest of the country the party suffered one of its most catastrophic election defeats. Nowadays, the Blairite/New Labour tag is used as a pejorative term, but Labour wins elections only when it can bring both sides of that middle-class and working-class coalition together. The reality of rejecting a centre-left politics that wins the centre-ground and governs to the left is to embrace permanent opposition – a position too many in the Labour Party find far too comfortable.
Well then, can he win? It’s good that the leadership election will be a real one. Scottish Labour will be all the better for that. An election means open debate and it means definition. Because Nicola Sturgeon was unchallenged, she has had no chance to show voters how her politics differ from Alex Salmond’s. All that has come across is the same constitutional obsession that defined Salmond’s career, whereby hope of another referendum trumps social justice – or any other ambition for Scotland.
Murphy faces a challenge from the Left which will give a clarity to his policies and his positioning. Already Unite has set out its stall praising the “democratic socialist” (ie tried and failed leftist) credentials of the MSP Neil Findlay. Perhaps they have given too little thought to how many of their members work in the defence industries – on Faslane and the Clyde. These workers know Jim well as shadow defence secretary and supporter of Trident.
Can he win the 2016 election? Well, he won’t die wondering. What is for certain is that he is running to be First Minister and not to be the leader of the opposition. He will throw everything at it and in the process revolutionise the Scottish Labour Party. A new voice. New ideas. New ways of campaigning. New means of communication. It’s the prescription worldwide for renewal.
And why Jim, and why now? Hugh MacDiarmid sums it up: “The rose of all the world is not for me. /I want for my part/Only the little white rose of Scotland /That smells sharp and sweet—and breaks the heart.’’ Jim loves Scotland – we’ll find out if it loves him back.
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