Leaders: Jim Murphy’s legacy

Jim Murphy. Picture: John Devlin
Jim Murphy. Picture: John Devlin
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Murphy leaves a blueprint for the credible opposition needed to hold the SNP to account

To many in Scottish Labour, the plans departing leader Jim Murphy announced yesterday for the party’s future may go too far for comfort. In a radical set of proposals – rubber stamped by the party’s ruling body – the former MP ended trade union power in leadership elections, scrapped protection of failing MSPs, and opened up the prospect of candidates for the 2020 Westminster election being selected in US-style primaries.

‘He was scuppered by circumstances, and the state of the party he inherited’

After a devastating general election result which saw just one Labour MP returned in Scotland, Murphy is a divisive character among many of his colleagues. Why, some will undoubtedly ask, should we listen to him?

But those who blame Murphy – incorrectly, in our view – for Labour’s current predicament should think again.

Murphy may have flaws, and it is clear he can be a divisive character within and outside his party, but his critics are absolutely wrong to suggest that he should, alone, shoulder the blame for Labour’s woes. During his brief leadership, he sharpened up his party, focusing on issues that mattered, tackling the SNP on its record on education and health, and outlining a vision for Scotland.

That he failed to achieve what he set out to do is surely down, to a considerable degree, to the current climate, where Scotland stands divided on the constitutional question. Murphy, we would contend, was scuppered by circumstances and the state of the party he inherited, rather than by his own actions.

So, while it may be convenient for some in his party to kick against his blueprint, we believe it should be accepted as the thoughtful response of a credible witness to Labour’s problems.

A number of the party’s current regional list MSPs are placemen and women, whose election was not down to personal talent or drive but to the fact that Labour lost so many of its constituency seats in 2011. The replacement of some of these politicians would be good news not only for Labour but for Scotland.

And the removal of union influence will surely allow the next leader to move towards the electorate rather than being dragged to the left, away from the centre ground currently dominated by the SNP.

Scottish Labour has spent many years claiming publicly that it would learn from electoral humiliation after electoral humiliation but privately doing little to address the root causes of its malaise. Instead, the party has allowed itself to become bogged down in in-fighting while the SNP surges ahead in the polls.

The SNP now dominates Scottish politics in a way that even Labour in its heyday never could. This dominance means that the nationalists are not properly held to account.

Yet a strong and effective opposition is of 
importance to us all; it is never healthy for a government to be without one. A Labour party brought back from the brink of extinction could play its part in that opposition.

It is, perhaps, too easy to forget that, despite the SNP’s quite astonishing electoral success, there is still no majority in favour of Scottish independence. Many who voted to remain in the United Kingdom less than a year ago now find themselves without a voice at either Holyrood or Westminster.

Labour can find support among these voters if it presents a credible case. That means, yes, the retirement of some failing MSPs, as well as a more distinctively Scottish approach to the party’s politics.

Jim Murphy’s political career has ended in failure, as most do. But if his legacy is a sharper opposition, a stronger voice for those who do not subscribe to the nationalist worldview, then that failure will be tempered by a considerable achievement.