Interview: Jim Murphy on patriotism, socialism and Labour’s future

Jim Murphy loves Scotland.

I know this because he assures me of it at least a dozen times in a half-hour interview.

Scotland is his country. He’s proud of it. He intends to do well by it.

Asked why he wants to lead Scottish Labour, the first thing he says is: “It sounds trite, but I love my country.”

This expression of national pride is jarring because the SNP has so comprehensively co-opted the language of patriotism. That Murphy is comfortable talking about his love of country sets him apart from so many Scottish Labour politicians in recent years.

That’s not all that makes him different. He loves his Irn-Bru and his Celtic — some sort of football club popular in the West of Scotland, m’lud — and for a politician he seems remarkably, well, normal.

He’s the only vegetarian I’ve ever spent more than three minutes with and not wanted to punch.

He has a sense of humour, doesn’t take himself too seriously, and though he speaks with evident passion about creating a fairer society, it is clear that politics is not his life.

“I’ve never been a favourite in an election but I’ve never come second,” he points out, before chewing it over and adding: “There’s three candidates in this race so maybe I’ll come third this time and keep that record.”

He’s the sort of bloke you could have a pint with. Except he’s teetotal.

(An abstemious vegetarian? Applying to lead Scottish Labour? At a time like this? If he wins, I give it six months before he gets tanked on half a Bacardi Breezer and challenges Len McCluskey to a square go in a Nando’s car park.)

Career

In the Scottish Labour leadership election, Murphy stands out as the only MP contesting for the top job. A former president of the National Union of Students (where he made himself a power of enemies by reversing the NUS’s opposition to scrapping grants), he pulled off a surprise win in the safe Tory seat of Eastwood in 1997. He has retained the seat, now known as East Renfrewshire, ever since and despite the best efforts of the Conservatives to win back the prosperous suburban constituency.

Although often branded a Blairite, his political star came into the ascendancy when Gordon Brown took over at Number Ten and Murphy was appointed Europe minister and later Secretary of State for Scotland, a position from which he masterminded Labour’s successful 2010 election in Scotland.

His 100 Towns in 100 Days tour of Scotland during the independence referendum was seen as both a welcome energy boost for the Better Together campaign and a brazen pitch to replace the ineffective Johann Lamont as Scottish Labour leader. (It was also a tactic blatantly nicked from Neil Kinnock — coincidentally, a recent Murphy backer — who figured out early on that the 1983 general election was lost and drove round the country with a megaphone denouncing Thatcherism and positioning himself to succeed Michael Foot.) Murphy infamously attracted Nationalist hecklers to his soapbox speeches, their roiling anger — and flying dairy produce — betraying the threat they deemed him to pose.

If Labour’s electoral college of MPs, MSPs, members, and unions award him the job, Nationalists think Murphy’s 17-year record at Westminster will provide them with endless lines of attack:- His support for tuition fees; his vote for military action in Iraq; his parliamentary expenses.

The problem is that anyone who won’t vote Labour because Jim Murphy supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein stopped voting Labour a long time ago and probably never will again. Murphy himself recognises the need to move on from New Labour, while careful to pay the necessary obeisance to that project and the leader who brought Labour back out of the wilderness.

He explains: “New Labour is a way of thinking and of designing your politics that was of the moment in the mid-90s. It’s 20 years of age and it’s time to do things a bit differently. I’m not fascinated by whether people are left-wing or right-wing, New or Old Labour, I want us to be winning Labour.”

The time has come, he reckons, to step beyond the party’s most successful leader: “I think we need a post-Tony Blair Labour Party that’s patriotic, that’s radical. The Labour Party’s had six leaders since Tony Blair: two UK leaders and four Scottish leaders. It’s time for us to move on. Tony Blair was the right answer to the questions of his era. He’s a long time gone so it’s time to move on and be more confident about our future rather than continually harking on and looking in our rear-view mirror about our past.”

Murphy is not the candidate to bring disaffected lefties back into the fold. They have gone to the fringes or to the SNP, socialist Scotland’s favourite neoliberal party. His appeal is to the mainstream Labour voter, including those who have become more comfortable voting SNP in recent years. But as he argued during the Scotland Tonight leadership hustings, his pitch reaches further than that. “I don’t think we can just talk to Labour voters,” he said. “There aren’t enough of them.”

That means driving Labour’s tanks onto the SNP’s lawns just as brazenly as Alex Salmond did to Labour over the last decade. For the most committed SNP supporters, independence is everything but amongst the Nationalists’ impressive electoral coalition there are many, including Yes voters, who have other priorities.

Winning over Yes voters

Cast your mind back, if you can, to a time before the referendum campaign, when we had entire conversations and even parliamentary debates about things other than the constitution. Murphy’s task is to return the political debate to education, health, and the economy — and to offer voters bold alternatives to the SNP. His Blairite credentials might even come in handy here.

Scottish politics needs a substantial opposition figure other than Tory leader Ruth Davidson who is willing to think the unthinkable in order to reform education, improve the NHS, and create jobs. There is real scope to take on some of the SNP’s sacred cows, particularly their hostility to the non-state sectors, and offer parents, patients, businesspeople, public sector workers, and taxpayers policies driven by outcomes rather than the SNP’s uneasy mixture of populism and ideology.

How bold Murphy is willing or inclined to be remains to be seen, but he is determined to reach out to everyone necessary to win, including Yes voters.

He maintains: “You have to move beyond the referendum. You don’t win people’s affections by telling them they were wrong… It’s about reaching out to these folk and making a patriotic case that we believe in similar things; we just disagree about how to achieve them. On the basis that we’ve now decided the constitutional arrangements of Scotland for a generation, as we were told, then let’s work together.

“If ever there’s a referendum again, we’ll be on different sides of that probably, but let’s work together in the meantime and try to create a better society. The challenge for the Labour Party is to be a party again that people can see a cause of social justice in. For example, I want to put income tax up to 50% as part that.”

His own brand of socialism

That left tilt is perfectly balanced by a pitch to the middle ground.

“In terms of aspirational voters, it’s about guaranteeing that if you go to work you’ll be better off in work than if you are on benefit. Now that parts of the welfare state are going to be devolved to Scotland, that’s important. It’s also about saying to people they deserve a decent home and it they want to own their home, I’m happy about that. I’m in favour of more people owning their home.”

He wouldn’t reinstate the Right to Buy but wants to ensure there are enough houses, council, social, and private, to end homelessness.

Murphy insists he is a socialist, a claim that his critics and even some of his supporters would scoff at. The MP for East Renfrewshire is not someone you’d mistake for a Morning Star seller standing outside a boarded-up Woolworths on a drizzly Saturday morning.

But Comrade Murphy has his own definition:

“Everyone who’s comfortable with that title had a different definition. For me it means it doesn’t matter where you’re born or the family you’re born into, you should have a fair chance. And you should get a second and third chance in life. Strident, right-wing Conservatism has a sense of you being on your own; it’s like advanced social Darwinism – the survival of the fittest. I think every human being is created equal and people should have an equal chance.

“It’s up to people what you do with your chance but my politics are that you should get a first chance, a second chance, a third chance. But you only get one shot at life and a politician’s job is to help you make the most of your life. If you don’t take your chances, there’s nothing I can do about that, but I’m a patient person and I’d like to give people multiple chances and choices. That’s my socialism. Others have their own definition.”

I don’t buy Murphy’s definition for a second but it is obvious that justice in one form or another is the nucleus of his political philosophy. While most Labour politicians learn about injustice from The Road to Wigan Pier or The Soul of Man under Socialism, Murphy lived it first hand during his early years in South Africa.

His parents were driven there in search of work and better opportunities for their family. What greeted the 12-year-old Jim was the moral obscenity of apartheid. He describes a thread of segregation that ran through every aspect of public and private life. It is the only point during the interview that he’s subdued and his voice takes on a sadness that seems to come from another time and place.

He recounts: “It was a bizarre nightmare of a society, where the only thing that mattered was the colour of your skin. In a country where almost 90% of the country were black Africans, you could easily go weeks without coming into contact with anyone other than someone of the same skin colour. You would stand at a Whites Only bus stop to go to a Whites Only school. You would travel on Whites Only buses. It was an unforgivable type of politics but the remarkable thing is that so many South Africans have forgiven.”

He adds: “I had to go to a Whites Only school where you had to learn Afrikaans, you had to be bilingual. Every Thursday you had to turn up to school in your cadet uniform and march up and down the rugby field to prepare to go and serve two years in the South African army. The society was structured around the maintenance of a minority politics. The media was controlled by the state, the curriculum was influenced by the state’s racism, sport was used to bolster a white supremacy. Then, like the Berlin Wall, it all just fell over.”

Life under Apartheid

He paints a harrowing picture of a society that practised totalitarianism over the human spirit. It is, however, where he felt the first stirrings of political radicalism.

He recalls: “Nelson Mandela’s name was banned — and his photograph. You weren’t allowed to say his name and the newspapers weren’t allowed to print his name or his photograph or they would have been shut down. It’s a remarkable experience to have your political consciousness forged in a place where democratic politics wasn’t tolerated and the biggest decisions you’ve got to make are daily ones about the way in which you live your life.

“Do you buy into the casual, all-encompassing racism that dominated your education and dominated the culture of the country? I chose to opt out of that in all sorts of different ways. You find a social circle that wants nothing to do with it. You find ways of arguing against it. Then when it comes to the big decision about whether you’re going to serve in the South African army, I left the country.”

The move, he interjects, was not motivated by pacifism or cowardice. “I wasn’t going to spend two years of my life propping up the vile beast that was apartheid.”

Instead he went to Glasgow, to study at Strathclyde University, and it was years before he saw the family he had left behind in Cape Town again. There’s that sadness again, but his tone quickly turns upbeat when he remembers that the experience, and the British Government’s stance on apartheid, drove him to political activism.

“Mrs Thatcher got me to join the Labour Party,” he announces with pride. The late Conservative Prime Minister had opposed international sanctions against South Africa and deemed the African National Congress a terrorist outfit rather than a liberation movement. “I had just returned from that country and couldn’t understand it at all.”

Now, a quarter of a century on, Murphy wants to lead his party, or at least its Scottish “branch office”. He could hardly have picked a worse time, given the party’s continuing opposition at Holyrood, dreadful poll numbers, and an SNP surging towards 100,000 members and a possible breakthough at Westminster next May.

The Sturgeon challenge

The real obstacle to his political ambitions is the new First Minister. Nicola Sturgeon is a social democrat’s dream come true, a politician so perfectly attuned to the ideals and impulses of north European progressivism that she could almost have walked off the set of her favourite TV programme Borgen.

Quite how that fits with a party that campaigns for corporate tax cuts and a services-slashing council tax freeze is a dynamic yet to play itself out. But as personal polling numbers show, this contradiction does not weigh on the minds of the electorate, who consistently rate the First Minister above any other politician in trust and effectiveness.

I ask Murphy if the SNP is a “left-of-centre” party and I’ve barely reached the question mark before he rejects the idea. Surely, I push, Nicola Sturgeon’s politics are more clearly aligned with Labour voters than Alex Salmond’s ever were.

“We’ll see what Nicola Sturgeon is, we’ve yet to see what she really is. I think she’s effective, I think she’s formidable. Nicola Sturgeon will be what she needs to be to build a coalition to get independence. The SNP are unencumbered by an economic anchor; they will drift wherever they need to go to build a coalition that gets them to 50% plus one of the votes in any future referendum.”

Outside Glasgow and the west, he assures me, many of the SNP’s supporters are not left-wing and lend their vote to the Nationalists as the “anyone but Labour” party. However, in Labour’s traditional working-class heartlands, he recognises how much work has to be done.

He concedes: “In terms of the central belt, the Labour Party hasn’t been good enough. That’ll change. We haven’t been strong enough, we haven’t been proud enough, we haven’t been radical enough.” That radicalism need not mean ideological policies, he argues, and should include overlooked and unpopular issues like mental health and prison reform.

But he is convinced that Labour alone is the platform on which a progressive politics can be built.

“Radical social reform in our country comes from the Labour Party, when it comes to things like ending discrimination based on people’s sexuality, driving out discrimination based on gender, the Equal Pay Act, the Sex Discrimination Act, all the great social reforms in our country – the national minimum wage, devolution, freedom of information – all of these great reforms come from a Labour government. The SNP have spent seven years in power and while they’ve done some important things that the Labour Party should probably have supported – such as the minimum pricing of alcohol – there’s a lot more that can be done.”

Still, if Murphy wins — and that’s not guaranteed; Labour’s trade union money men aren’t keen on him — he faces a monumental challenge. He will be leading a party that has lost the votes, the patience, and frankly the goodwill of the people of Scotland. Murphy talks a good game but that will matter for little if the voters no longer want to listen.

But he has skill and wit and charm. He sounds like a leader and looks like a First Minister. He also has necessity on his side. He is spoken of by his supporters as the only candidate who can make Scottish Labour electable again. That is for Labour members and trade unionist voters to decide. The bigger decision for this party is whether it should continue to be relevant to the political life of Scotland.

Political parties that dominate electoral systems, as Labour has done in Scotland for half a century, come to confuse their dominance for permanence. But nations change and parties that fail to change with them are left behind. Consider the fate of Canada’s Progressive Conservative Party, the Democrat Party in the American South, or closer to home and a century back the Liberal Party. There is no law in heaven or earth that says the Scottish Labour Party must endure.

Labour responded to its defeat in 2007 by going into denial. In the wake of its 2011 drubbing, it gave the impression of a party that had still not come to terms with its electoral reversal and had lost the will to fight back. The opinion polls for next May’s general election and the 2016 Scottish Parliament vote hint at results ranging from dire to apocalyptic.

A winning Labour

Murphy seems acutely aware of the odds stacked against his party at the moment. “The Scottish Labour Party is the underdog. Scottish Labour is used to being the champion of the underdog; it hasn’t often found itself to be the underdog.”

Under his leadership, the party will “get out of the recently acquired habit of losing”. What would a Murphy-run, non-losing Scottish Labour look like?

“We would have a much more professional party, a better-funded party, a much more confident party that takes its chin off its chest and stands up for itself. That says our cause is as great as the Nationalists’, if not greater. The sense of solidarity in our country and beyond and the knowledge that a boundary or a border has never put food in the tummy of any kid anywhere in the world. It’s about energy, optimism, and a sense of self-belief.

“We win, we hold what we have in 2015 and we go into a two-horse race against the Nats in 2016 where I think we can build a coalition of people, some of whom have always voted Labour and some of whom have never voted Labour. And in a two-horse race, I’m pretty confident we’ll win.”

It can’t be easy to summon up that kind of optimism at these times but the positivity seems genuine. It shouldn’t be allowed to lapse into complacency. Scottish Labour is a party fast running out of chances. Jim Murphy will be hoping members see him as one of those chances — and grab it while they can.

Originally published on STV NewsFeature image © Steve Punter by Creative Commons 2.0.

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