Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy has near-impossible task to attract the left and centre ground, writes Peter Jones
So, under Jim Murphy, Scottish Labour is to have a Clause Four moment in the hope that it will do for the Scottish party what Tony Blair’s rewriting of UK Labour’s Clause Four did for it. Scottish Labour certainly needs it, but whether it will achieve the same effect is highly dubious.
Older readers will need no reminding that the rewriting of Clause Four of Labour’s constitution in 1995 – which abandoned public ownership of industry as a party goal – is widely seen as the birth of what became New Labour. Although it is now much scorned north of the Border, it was a hugely successful political tactic, including in Scotland.
Indeed, Jim Murphy was a particular beneficiary. In the run-up to the 1997 general election he had been working at Scottish Labour Party headquarters. I recall him as a rather gawky and well-regarded researcher, but Wikipedia gives him the rather more impressive-sounding post of special projects manager. He became the Labour candidate in Eastwood, then one of the safest Conservative seats in Scotland. He had no expectation of winning it, planning on using the campaign as an experience which would help him become a candidate in a safe Labour seat – the target, as I recall, being Glasgow Cathcart.
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Thus he paid only dutiful visits during the campaign, and remained sceptical of the increasingly optimistic noises coming from his small campaign team until election day. Then, so many people were coming out of polling stations giving him cheery smiles, thumbs-up and refusing to look glum Conservative agents in the eye that it became obvious a tidal wave was sweeping the Tories out of Scotland and Mr Murphy to Westminster, four years ahead of schedule.
Mr Murphy would be the first to admit that 95 per cent of that Eastwood victory was down to Mr Blair and not him. Now, as Scottish leader, can he do for Scottish Labour hopefuls what Mr Blair did for him? Frankly, it is a task of an altogether different order. Then, Mr Blair had a strong political wind at his back. All Britain, and not just Scotland, was fed up with the Tories who were either tearing each other apart over Europe or sinking in scandal after scandal.
Then too, Labour was gaining members anxious to play a part in ousting the Tories. Now, Mr Murphy has a gale in his face. Scottish Labour is haemorrhaging members to a party in government in Scotland, the SNP, which shows no signs of division or of scandal but is, if anything, swamped with new members. Neither does the electorate show any sign of being tired of the SNP. Rather, voters seem to be completely turned off Labour, which seems to be achieving the remarkable feat of getting more unpopular the longer it is in opposition.
A tall order … a mountain to climb … none of the usual clichés seems to adequately describe the size of the task facing Mr Murphy, whose party, according to current polls, faces a near-wipeout by the SNP at the next general election which could rate right up there alongside the 1997 Tory obliteration on the Scottish political Richter scale.
To prevent that, he has less than six months to achieve what took Mr Blair about three years. And he is not even in the Scottish parliament which is now the primary focus of political attention.
On the plus side, he has wasted no time in planting his base camp and his political standard. No more kow-towing to UK leaders; Mr Murphy’s Scottish Labour will make its own policies – though quite how that will square with UK Labour paying Scottish party staff salaries and campaign bills has yet to be seen.
Establishing clear Scottish party autonomy and then a clear Scottish identity is obviously of paramount importance. With that has to come a clear, easy-to-communicate vision of what Scotland under Labour might be like. It is more important than ever that this vision be inspirational, not just to win votes, but to recruit new party members needed as vote-winning troops on the ground. The party is completely hollowed out. Its membership in the constituency parties is less than 10,000 and perhaps not even a tenth of what the SNP can now boast.
What’s more, senior party members tell me that most of the existing constituency membership comprises the relatives and friends of councillors/MSPs/MPs who see their primary role as protecting these fiefdoms and who would not welcome, let alone cause to happen, an influx of new members who might try to oust second-rate post-holders in favour of somebody new and better.
And, goodness knows, looking at the Labour MSP ranks, new talent is needed, for it is the younger and most recent entrants to the parliament, such as Kezia Dugdale, now the deputy Scottish leader, who are providing most of the energy that the Labour Holyrood contingent has.
Neither does it have the modern e-communication skills of the SNP which, I would guess, has hoovered up enough data from the referendum campaign to be able to talk directly to perhaps a million of the 1.6 million who voted Yes, maybe even more.
Considering that conservative estimate is more than the most who have previously voted SNP in an election – 903,000 in 2011 – and a lot more than the 491,000 who voted SNP at the last general election, that is a formidable campaign advantage.
Well, maybe if Mr Murphy can establish a convincing-sounding Scottish party identity and vision, he can begin to turn that round. But here he has another problem quite unlike that which faced Mr Blair.
As Mr Murphy said in his speech yesterday, Mr Blair revised Clause Four in order to win the centre ground. But all the evidence suggests that it is the left ground which is collapsing under Scottish Labour’s feet, particularly the constituency of the poor and deprived.
What remains of the party is naturally anxious to stop and reverse that process and sees the adoption of left-sounding policies – more taxation of the rich (which in Scotland means the middle-class) and more spending – as the way to do that. That, however, vacates the centre ground, and Mr Murphy cannot afford to do that.
Climbing a mountain? More like trying to empty Loch Lomond with a bucket.
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