Tom Peterkin: Pragmatism & populism on Murphy menu

Murphy keeps his eye on the ball with Gary Mackay at a charity match at Tynecastle. Picture: Rob McDougall
Murphy keeps his eye on the ball with Gary Mackay at a charity match at Tynecastle. Picture: Rob McDougall
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When Jim Murphy was in his late teens he was taken out for a meal that was to have a bearing on the rest of his life.

As a passionate young Labour activist in the 1980s, Murphy was flirting with the far left. Word of the Strathclyde University student’s dalliance was doing the rounds among his friends, so Andy Kerr, then a National Union of Students official and later a Labour health minister, took Murphy out for something to eat.

It wasn’t exactly a Granita moment, given that the pair met in a Glaswegian Pizza Hut. It was, however, a meeting that saw the slightly older Kerr convince Murphy that his future lay in mainstream Labour politics.

Thirty or so years after that encounter, Murphy has become a very big fish in the mainstream as the party’s newly elected Scottish leader. In his new position, Murphy faces the toughest challenge of his political career.

To overcome the hurdles that lie ahead, he will need to make full use of the qualities that were evident as he tucked into his pizza all those years ago.

That Murphy was prepared to take Kerr’s advice and reject the hard left was an early sign that here was an individual who was prepared to embrace pragmatism over left-wing ideology to further his career and maximise his impact.

The Pizza Hut meeting was also testimony to the fact that Murphy had been marked out as someone with ability from a young age.

His ability and pragmatic flexibility are needed more than ever before as he inherits a deeply demoralised party. Colleagues also praise his optimism and toughness – character traits that will be essential if Labour is to steal back momentum from the SNP.

“Jim is very positive. He has sackfuls of confidence. He is a very optimistic politician. Mind you, he has to be, given the scale of the challenge facing Labour,” said one Murphy-supporting MSP.

“He is also as tough as old boots, which is something that should not be underestimated, given the knock-about nature of Scottish politics.”

With a general election less than five months away, Murphy has to hit the ground running. Already he has a key advantage over his most recent predecessors. Unlike Iain Gray or Johann Lamont, his public profile is extremely high. Over the next few weeks the former Secretary of State for Scotland will try to boost that profile further as he tries to sell himself and his vision for Labour by taking issues to the streets.

Labour insiders believe a key part of Murphy’s strategy will be to take his message to the people, a tactic redolent of his egg-splattered “100 towns” tour of Scotland during the referendum.

Pressing the flesh is something that Murphy enjoys. In Scotland, sociability is not always associated with those of a teetotal, vegetarian disposition. But Murphy performs well on the stump, with his fanatical love of football offering a rich source of banter.

Yesterday he set out his desire to unite his country by appealing to Yes voters to join him in tackling the inequality that blights Scotland.

Clues to the sort of policies he will follow were offered during his successful leadership battle against the left- wing Neil Findlay and Sarah Boyack, the veteran of Scottish Labour’s front bench.

Murphy promised a Blairite-style reform of education to help the poorest-performing schools and pupils, including a rebooting of the chartered teachers scheme, which had fallen by the wayside under the SNP.

His willingness to change his mind according to the political weather was also in evidence – most notably when his reluctance to embrace full devolution of income tax at the outset of the campaign was replaced by wholehearted support when he saw which way the wind was blowing on that issue.

His enthusiasm for riding two horses at once was seen when he promised to reintroduce the 50p rate of income tax for the wealthiest while saying he wanted Labour to be the party for the prosperous as well as the poor.

Those close to Murphy believe that for his leadership to succeed he must develop a narrative that lays out an attractive set of Labour values and principles.

They say he must not fall into the trap of letting Labour define itself as simply the “anti-SNP party” – there has to be an appealing vision that will sustain and win back support. Amongst the group at Holyrood, there is a feeling that this is something his predecessor Lamont failed to articulate convincingly.

One criticism of Lamont’s leadership was that too much was focused on the weekly jousts with Alex Salmond at First Minister’s Questions.

Although this may have paid dividends when Lamont scored a victory at the despatch box, many feel that more work should have been done on long-term strategy and planning.

In addition to the big picture, Murphy has a big job to do when it comes to internal Scottish Labour matters. One of his first tasks will have to be to unite the party after the leadership election.

With Findlay winning more support than him from the trade unions, Murphy has to send a strong message that he can be a unifying leader, even though the vast majority of union leaders were against him. During his leadership campaign, he was also the subject of a no-holds-barred attack by the Unite leader Len McCluskey. McCluskey’s attack on Murphy for voting for the Iraq war, and his barbs that Murphy’s style was “re-heated Blairism”, will be overlooked by the new leader.

There are also bridges to be built behind the scenes between the Labour Support Unit – the party’s cadre of press officers and researchers at Holyrood – and the party machine, the campaigning part of the organisation based at Labour HQ in Glasgow’s Bath Street.

The most public face of 
Murphy’s team-building is likely to be known this week when he announces his shadow Cabinet.

With Nicola Sturgeon having made great play of appointing an SNP Cabinet with as many women as men, there is little doubt that gender balance is an important consideration for Murphy.

Although the Labour benches at Holyrood look a little tired, he is fortunate that some of his ablest MSPs are female.

With Kezia Dugdale duly elected as his deputy, hers is the first name on his team-sheet.

Jenny Marra, another of the new generation of female MSPs, will be in line for a top job – perhaps health.

Claire Baker, whose husband Richard is looking to exchange the benches of Holyrood for Westminster, is another likely to be considered for the front bench.

Jackie Baillie, who has been gamely standing in at First Minister’s Questions since Lamont’s departure, is likely to figure prominently in Murphy’s line-up.

It would be a major surprise if Sarah Boyack, the former minister under Donald Dewar, is not rewarded after showing the gumption to stand against Murphy.

Similarly, the other defeated leadership candidate, Neil Findlay, can expect a job – although he may move from his current position as health spokesman.

Appointing Findlay would not only recognise his energy and ability, but would also send out the right message to the unions.

Also tipped for promotion is Drew Smith, another of the new generation of MSPs who is seen as promising although yet to be tested in the front line.

Richard Simpson, the veteran MSP and former doctor, could add some erudition and experience of life outside politics to the team.

When Murphy meets his MSPs, MEPs, MPs and councillors today, he also faces the tricky task of healing the divisions that exist between MSPs and MPs, who resent the coverage and profile enjoyed by their Holyrood colleagues.

Murphy is determined to involve all Labour members of all parliaments in the party’s fightback. MEPs, in particular, are expected to play a more prominent role to underline Labour’s European credentials.

With membership of the SNP reaching stratospheric levels (almost 100,000), Murphy has already indicated that he does not intend to be beholden to London.

But convincing people that he is the Scottish leader of a Scottish-based party will be challenging while he remains a Westminster MP. Murphy has to work out how he engineers his route into Holyrood – a journey that is fraught with banana skins.

Challenges may abound, but Murphy supporters can take comfort from the fact that the married father of three children has proved to be a resilient and determined politician.

That resilience, which has seen him come from a council flat on the south side of Glasgow to high political office at Westminster, was forged in his up-bringing. His energy and work ethic came through the example of his parents. His 
father was a builder who travelled vast distances to find work.

When work dried up in Glasgow, the family lived in a caravan in Southampton, where there was a job for his father. The family then moved to South Africa, where Murphy spent his formative years.

He decided to return to Scotland aged 18, rather than do his National Service in an army serving an apartheid state. His childhood in a racially divided country is said to inform his adult politics and his belief in social justice and equality.

Back in Scotland, he went to Strathclyde University, where his love of politics flourished. Becoming involved in the student political scene, he eventually became president of the National Union of Students in the mid-1990s.

It was then that he started thinking seriously of a political career. His strategic instincts were impressive back then.

He had his eye on Glasgow Cathcart, a safe Labour seat which he could see would be vacated by John Maxton in 2001. To prepare for that, he decided to have a “dry run” by standing for Labour in Eastwood in 1997.

Back then, Eastwood was the safest Tory seat in Scotland and Murphy assumed he would have no chance. The fates, however, were to intervene.

The local Tories went into meltdown when first 
Allan Stewart, the sitting MP, and then his replacement candidate Sir Michael Hirst were involved in minor scandals. With Tony Blair sweeping to power, Murphy found himself at Westminster – much to his surprise.

The strategist in Murphy was dismayed. He assumed that the Tory instinct was so strong in Eastwood that he would be turfed out at the next election and therefore lose his chance to get Cathcart.

The pragmatist in Murphy was more upbeat. He resolved to get working. Years of graft, cultivating community leaders, turning up at events and working with constituents saw him turn Eastwood into his own patch. When Murphy steps down from the seat, since renamed East Renfrewshire, to come to Holyrood he will 
leave it as a strong Labour constituency.

That episode was another 
illustration of his willingness to adapt, which was shown when he sat down for a pizza with Andy Kerr.

It was also proof of his ability to turn a potentially unpromising situation into a winning one.

It is that latter quality which Murphy will require in spades, to succeed in his new calling.