I’m no Blairite, says Labour deputy leadership hopeful Ian Murray

Ian Murray’s Westminster political career has been a series of lonely, thankless battles.
Ian Murray speaks to voters ahead of the 2019 general election, which saw him returned as the only Labour MP in ScotlandIan Murray speaks to voters ahead of the 2019 general election, which saw him returned as the only Labour MP in Scotland
Ian Murray speaks to voters ahead of the 2019 general election, which saw him returned as the only Labour MP in Scotland

Elected in 2010, he held on to his seat for Labour after the retirement of the incumbent, when his party was going backwards and Edinburgh South was the number one Liberal Democrat target.

He was one of the earliest movers on the Labour benches pushing the party to back a second referendum on EU membership. And he’s survived two historic SNP landslides that have left him the sole Labour MP in Scotland.

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Now Murray is taking on the anointed candidate of the left for the deputy leadership, trying to remind the UK Labour Party that Scotland exists.

He’s never had to speak about himself much, but he has to if he wants to overcome the legacy of another lonely battle: Murray was among the strongest and earliest critics of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership; one of the first to quit the shadow cabinet in 2016.

He’s asking for votes from a party dominated by Corbyn supporters who have little sense of him, beyond what they see as disloyalty.

People have preconceived ideas about my politics that aren’t actually true,” Murray says when we sit down in his office, on an upper floor of Portcullis House.

There aren’t many artworks on the walls or knick-knacks on the shelves - although he does have a framed political cartoon showing a workman dismantling a Westminster statue of a prime minister, as he shouts: “Don’t move that head yet! Party still can’t find one to replace it.”

Murray grew up in the Wester Hailes neighbourhood of Edinburgh, among some of Scotland’s most deprived housing estates.

“Mother, father, two kids, grandparents lived a mile on either side, and on the square that we lived in on Dumbryden Gardens, we had two cousins across the road,” he says. “Our best mates that we still go to the football with lived in the top floor of another flat.

“We used to all play together in the square. The primary school, Dumbryden Primary School, was just across the bridge behind it.”

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His father and uncle worked in what is now the Whyte & Mackay whisky distillery, starting out as coopers. Murray’s mum was mainly at home looking after him and his brother, doing the odd bit of part time work, like cleaning at a Woolworths. But then his father died at the age of 39, when Murray was nine and his brother 13.

“She did a kitchen job in a pub. She worked in a pub called the Busy Bee in Saughton which was next to her parents. It was a pretty rough pub, but nobody got on the wrong side of her.”

Later, he went to the Wester Hailes Education Centre, which still has one of the lowest attainment rates in Scotland. Murray says he “loved it” and would have been a teacher if he hadn’t gone into politics, but he went to university at just 16 “because school didn’t have much left for me to do”.

Like much of the time, there’s a wink in Murray’s voice as he adds: “I didn’t drink, honest.”

Murray was part of the University of Edinburgh’s Lothian Equal Access Programme for Schools, which works to get pupils from the most deprived areas around the Scottish capital into one of the UK’s most prestigious ancient universities.

“That’s why I’m quite passionate about university entry stuff,” he says. Murray was part of a summer programme that brings teenagers on to the university campus to show them what life as a student is like, and he won an offer from Edinburgh conditional on getting five marks at higher level, two of which had to be As.

“I was OK in four subjects that I did, but I was doing music at a higher level for the first time, and I hadn’t done music at standard grade level. And I was doing drums and piano. The music teacher said if you want to get into Edinburgh University at the end of fifth year, you’re going to have to do something other than play the drums, because you’re hopeless.

“I said, what other instrument can I do? She went, you can’t learn another instrument to that kind of level between now and then. You’re going to have to sing.

“So I sang my way into uni really.”

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Murray concludes: “People go, ‘well, you know, you’re just a right-wing Blairite.’ And you go, well actually no, that upbringing was… the word tough is the wrong word to use, but it was as working class as any other person who’s on that deputy leadership slate.”

Football, pubs and politics have dominated Murray’s life. There was a bookmakers next to the Busy Bee, and his mother was also an independent bookie, taking her chalkboard to Musselburgh Racecourse. “You tell her the odds of something and she’ll work it out for you.” Murray was instrumental in the fan bailout of his beloved Heart of Midlothian FC, as chairman of the supporters’ trust.

Before being elected to parliament, Murray had a business running pubs and bars. His uncle, who became a “pseudo father”, would take him on the long walk across Edinburgh to Musselburgh. Murray remembers the route he took as a ten and 11 year-old the name of the pubs along the way. “He’d go in and I would stand outside.”

Rather than Tony Blair or Gordon Brown, who Murray describes as a “titan of politics”, his personal hero is John Smith.

“We were brought up in my family to boo at the TV every time Thatcher came on,” Murray says. “And Ken Clarke because he was the Chancellor, and Malcolm Rifkind, who was the local MP. When I told my mum at her 70th birthday party that I had lunch with Ken Clarke to talk about how we stop Brexit, she was furious.”

Murray rejects the suggestion that he is the “centrist candidate” against Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary and a loyal Corbyn lieutenant throughout. He says he would serve as shadow Scottish Secretary – a position he has been locked out of under Corbyn – for any of the leadership candidates.

Murray defends much of the 2019 manifesto, particularly on rail renationalisation and the call for a Green Industrial Revolution, but says it went “too far” in some places. A promise of free broadband internet was greeted on the doorsteps as “interesting but barking mad”, says Murray, and argues that the industry and public would have welcomed a voucher system that achieved the same aim without committing Labour to another big renationalisation.

“I think if you look at Angela Rayner’s politics and mine, there’s probably a cigarette paper between us on most of the value-driven stuff,” he says.

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“I think the difference is – and I don’t think it’s unkind to say this – I was outside the tent, trying to reflect what people were saying to me, and she was inside the tent trying to reflect what was inside the tent to the public.

“I always said to people in the Shadow Cabinet and to Jeremy himself that he had to change course, because that’s what the public were telling us. And if he didn’t, the public would have their say. And the public had their say on 12 December.”

Murray adds: “You’ve got two things you can do in politics. You can either listen to the public… or you can stick to your political purity and lose the public. And I’d rather be in government than in opposition.”

Having built a coalition in his own seat that has kept the SNP at bay, Murray’s pitch to the party is that he knows how to craft a message that is patriotic while also being pro-Union, pro-Europe and true to left-wing values, and can see off a tide of post-Brexit nationalism.

But he looks at risk of losing the argument at home, where the Scottish Labour party is ready to open the door to a second independence referendum – and perhaps in the UK party, too.

Clive Lewis, an outsider to make it on to the Labour leadership ballot, told the National newspaper this week that Scottish Labour should back indyref2 and its members free to campaign for independence, and even Sir Keir Starmer, who Murray is advising on Scottish issues along with Jess Phillips, appears open to allowing a referendum if there is a pro-independence majority after the 2021 Holyrood elections.

“I wouldn’t say that UK political parties have forgotten Scotland. I’d say that UK political parties to a certain extent don’t fully understand it,” Murray says.

“I wouldn’t go to a national newspaper in the southeast of England and say ‘I’m sorry, but I disagree that Norwich’s High Street should be pedestrianised.’ I mean, why would I? I know nothing about it. I’d be sticking my nose into something that I don’t really need to stick my nose into, and I’d be talking shit.”

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Murray says embracing indyref2 is a mistake for Labour, which “cannot be pandering to stuff that we don’t believe in for the sake of getting more votes”.

“Let the SNP put on the front page of a manifesto, ‘give us a mandate for a second independence referendum’ at the 2021 Scottish elections and let’s see what the electorate say,” he argues.

“I will be saying, ‘Look, by the time that 2021 comes along, we’ll have had 14 years of SNP government in Scotland. Everything has got worse, by every single measure: child poverty, NHS, education, transport, justice, economy, employment, hope and aspiration for the future, house building…’

“They’ve spent the last 14 years managing decline and what they’re asking you to do is to give them an independent country so they can trash that as well. I just don’t know why we’re having this discussion now.”