Jim Murphy –Why Can’t I Make Up My Mind About Him?

If you were in charge of Scottish Labour you’d have a bit of a job on your hands. The SNP is trying to milk the fact that Labour campaigned to vote no alongside the Conservative Party, who are about as popular as a diarrhoea flavoured wedding cake. It’s a weak argument, but the opinion polls make it look like it’s working – Labour trails the SNP in Westminster voting intentions at a significant margin. Jim Murphy has been charged with rescuing the Labour Party in the next election – and he was certainly the safest choice out of all the candidates. So why am I afraid for Labour?

Scottish Labour  – A Party with Problems

It is hard to overstate the trouble Scottish Labour is in. Its usually religiously loyal supporter base has become disillusioned.[1] Years of voting Labour have not rescued working class fortunes from the Thatcherite hangover. One coherent narrative is that Labour has ceased to reflect its voters’ values, with the leadership caring more about their own careers than the working man. This isn’t especially controversial – it’s being felt all over the UK and is partly responsible for the rise of UKIP, according to some commentators[2]. The previous Scottish Leader was apparently unable to tackle this attitude. She left with her dignity intact, criticising the Westminster party for treating Scottish Labour as “a branch office.”[3]

Did you call me working class, you pleb?

The party desperately needs to return to its roots if it is to maintain its voter base. More than that, Labour has a duty to hold the SNP to account as an effective opposition. A vibrant Labour party would also making Scottish Politics more interesting and the debates more important – can they effectively advocate for social equality and the welfare state, or are the defecting voters right to trust the SNP?

Jim Murphy – Blairite or Reformer?

Does Jim Murphy have either the left-wing vision or the autonomy from Westminster that we’ve identified? Well, no. He has been a career politician in every sense of the word. Never actually completing his degree, he was President of the NUS.[4] As NUS leader, he appeared to gain a reputation for amoral politicking and bullying. A motion lodged by Ken Livingstone in the House of Commons in 1996 condemned him for such behaviour. When he cancelled his “100 days tour” after being egged and asked Alex Salmond to “turn off the tap” of organised Yes Scotland hooliganism, it was another example of this opportunism.

A few days later, his tour resumed. Either Alex Salmond did turn off the tap and the SNP were being reasonable campaign opponents, or it wasn’t really a problem in the first place and he didn’t need to cancel his tour. You can decide which it is. But regardless, he has ascended the ranks of the Labour Cabinet, with every reshuffle padding out his CV. He is the flour in British Labour’s bread and butter.

They were only asking him if he’d like a cup of tea.

His voting record retains the best and worst parts of New Labour philosophy. Supporting the minimum wage, voting against the bedroom tax, but also voting for ID Cards, Trident and imposing tuition fees. For some, that makes it difficult to like him. For others, it’s a sign of his pragmatism and leadership. But you’ll agree that it fails to distinguish him from the Westminster Labour so many people are disillusioned with. Murphy’s politics doesn’t make him the ideal reforming candidate.

But there is hope. He refused to make political capital out of his efforts to rescue those caught in the Glasgow helicopter crash this year. He has talked about rewriting Clause 4[5], although there is no substance to the proposals yet other than allowing Scottish Labour to advocate for Scotland (revolutionary). Hardly the lurch to the left it has been portrayed as. But his speeches have emphasised consensus. He says he will put the national interest above political points-scoring. He does seem to accept that he must represent a changed Labour Party. His unexpected enthusiasm for doing so even got Herald columnist Iain MacWhirter asking “Is there anything on the left agenda Murphy doesn’t now accept?”[6]

One thing is clear: Scottish Labour needs a confident, assured leader who can adequately hold the SNP to account. But they also need a clean break from the Westminster Party and from their own past. For some reason, they can’t have both. That is an indictment of the talent on the Labour front bench. And yet, as someone who voted Yes but would support a socially just Union, I desperately want Jim to succeed. Scottish Labour need him to be the commanding force of progressiveness he is currently projecting. Jim Murphy, like Harvey Dent, is either going to end up as the hero we need right now, or the “hero” we deserve for voting No.

[1] http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/politics/article4240616.ece

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/commentisfree/2014/nov/21/rochester-byelection-beliefs-of-ukip-voters

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-29765415

[4] http://web.archive.org/web/20140908204350/http://www.holyrood.com/2010/02/alive-and-kicking/

[5] http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/dec/15/jim-murphy-labour-decline-in-scotland

[6] http://www.heraldscotland.com/comment/columnists/say-hello-to-new-jim-he-stands-for-everything-that-he-once-opposed.26098531

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