At a meeting of Scottish Labour’s National Executive, Murphy saw off a no-confidence motion by 17 votes to 14. But he then revealed he would stay in his post for only one more month, then make way for a new leader.
He also launched a withering attack on the “destructive behaviour” of Unite union leader Len McCluskey, who has blamed Scottish Labour for David Cameron’s victory in the general election, and promised to deliver a plan for reform of Scottish Labour before he departs.
After just five months in charge of Labour north of the Border, Murphy follows in the footsteps of his UK leader Ed Miliband and former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg to become the latest high-profile casualty of the general election.
His leadership has been under severe pressure ever since he lost his East Renfrewshire seat as part of the near-wipeout of Scottish Labour earlier this month, winning only one Scottish seat and losing 40 as the SNP surged to victory in 56 of the 59 Scottish constituencies.
Yesterday trade unions and constituency parties failed to gain enough support for their no-confidence motion at a three-hour National Executive meeting at Scottish Labour headquarters in Bath Street, Glasgow.
But Murphy then revealed his intention to resign at next month’s meeting of the executive, and turned his fire on his biggest critic when he held a press conference at a nearby hotel.
“It is clear that a small minority who didn’t accept my election as leader of the Scottish Labour Party just five months ago won’t accept the vote of the executive today and that will continue to divide the party,” Murphy said.
“The Labour party’s problem is not the link with trade unions, or even the relationship with Unite members – far from it. It is the destructive behaviour of one high-profile trade unionist.”
The outgoing leader was referring to McCluskey, who last week said Murphy should “leave the scene” when he argued that voters had been let down by the Scottish Labour leadership.
Murphy said: “I know over the past few days I have been at the centre of a campaign by the London leadership of Unite the union, and they blame myself or the Scottish Labour Party for the defeat of the UK Labour Party in the general election. That is a grotesque insult to the Scottish Labour Party. It’s a grotesque insult to our thousands of volunteers from someone who pays occasional fleeting visits to our great country. We have to draw the poison out of some of the personalities.
“Sometimes people see it as a badge of honour to have Mr McCluskey’s support. I kind of see it as a kiss of death to be supported by that type of politics.”
He added: “One of the things about stepping down is that you can say things in public that so many people in the Labour party only say in private.
“So whether it is in Scotland or in the contest to come in the UK, we cannot have our leaders selected or deselected by the grudges and grievances of one prominent man.
“The leader of the Scottish Labour Party doesn’t serve at the grace of Len McCluskey, and the next leader of the UK Labour Party should not be picked by Len McCluskey.”
He promised to produce a report that will recommend reforms to the Scottish party, including the introduction of a one-member-one-vote (OMOV) system for electing the next leader.
The introduction of OMOV would spell the end of the electoral college system, which made trade unions responsible for one-third of the votes cast for leadership candidates.
Murphy said: “When I table that report at next month’s meeting of the Scottish Labour Party executive, I will also table my resignation as leader of the Scottish Labour Party.
“It will be for the party executive to decide whether it accepts the reforms proposed, but a party in such urgent need of reform blocks those changes at its peril.”
Murphy’s report will look at attracting new members and defending solidarity in the face of rising nationalism.
He also said it would take a fresh look at policy in light of the new powers that are on their way to Holyrood.
Murphy, who will not stand for election at Holyrood as originally planned, has yet to decide what to do next. Harriet Harman, acting leader of the UK Labour Party, said it would be for Scottish Labour to choose a new leader.
She added: “As a cabinet minister and leader of his party in Scotland, Jim has been a hugely important figure in the Labour Party. He leaves with the best wishes and thanks of our movement.”
Murphy’s decision kick-started the hunt for his successor. Deputy leader Kezia Dugdale will be acting leader until a permanent replacement is found.
Dugdale, the Lothian MSP, will be one of the favourites to succeed Murphy in the contest to become the eighth Scottish Labour leader since the birth of devolution 16 years ago.
Other contenders could be Alex Rowley, the Fife MSP, who has emerged as one of Murphy’s fiercest critics.
Holyrood front-benchers Jenny Marra and Drew Smith might be expected to throw their hats into the ring.
Other contenders could include Douglas Alexander or Margaret Curran, two members of the Westminster old guard who lost their seats at Westminster.
Leading lights: top job candidates
The obvious candidate to succeed Murphy, Dugdale’s star has been rising within Scottish Labour for some time, despite her relative inexperience, having only been an MSP for four years. She ruled herself out of leadership in December, claiming that she was a “sidekick” at a time when Scottish Labour needed a “superhero”. However, she has stood in for Murphy in Holyrood over the past five months, taking on Nicola Sturgeon in First Minister’s Questions very competently. It remains to be seen whether that five-month stint has given her enough experience to be able – or to want to – lead Scottish Labour out of its current position.
Another rising star of the party, MSP Smith was given the post of parliamentary private secretary to Jim Murphy and trade union liaison officer in the last cabinet reshuffle. One of his most high-profile political campaigns has been to attempt to introduce a “soft opt-out” system to the donor register, while he was also a strong advocate of same-sex marriage.
North East Scotland MSP Marra ruled herself out of the leadership last time round, instead taking on the role of co-chair of Murphy’s leadership campaign team. However, she was given a prominent position in Murphy’s cabinet when he named her health spokeswoman. Like Smith and Dugdale, Marra is one of the younger members of the party, but has high hopes riding on her abilities.
Rowley is a newcomer to Holyrood, having only entered parliament via a by-election in January last year, but he is not lacking in Labour party experience – or confidence. Last week he clearly stated his position when he quit the shadow cabinet in protest at Murphy’s decision to remain at the head of the party. A former spokesman for local government and community empowerment, Rowley is best known for his close connections to Gordon Brown, to whom he was a senior aide, and as a former general secretary of the party in Scotland and a one-time council leader.
A candidate for the leadership back in December, the former bricklayer and secondary school teacher is known as a left-winger whose politics would please the unions if not offer a more palatable option to the former Scottish Labour supporters who found the SNP’s brand of socialism attractive in the general election. His policies during the last leadership contest included raising the minimum wage and the reintroduction of council house building. He attracted more than a third of the vote, coming second to Murphy.
Unlike many of his potential rivals, Alexander has vast experience and a public profile. He is also, since his defeat to 20-year-old Paisley MP Mhairi Black in this month’s general election, in need of a job, although the question of whether this is one he would want remains to be seen.
Labour’s only Scottish MP, it would be unlikely the party would want to risk losing its only Westminster seat to allow Murray to stand for Holyrood next year, which he would probably have to do should he become party leader. He also has a fair amount on his plate, having just been named shadow Scottish secretary.