How Jim Murphy learned to stop worrying and love the Left

Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay delivered an unapologetically left-wing speech at the launch of his party’s general election manifesto.

The socialist firebrand roused the faithful with pungent class warfare rhetoric as he rolled off a roster of Old Labour policies.

He promised to tax high earners and their mansions and spend the money on the NHS. There would be a crackdown on tax avoidance, more state intervention in the economy, and redistribution of wealth from the richest to the poorest in society.

Moderates within the Labour Party warned the document could come to be seen as the longest suicide note in hist–

Wait a minute. This isn’t right.

Jim Murphy won the Scottish Labour leadership, not Neil Findlay. You know Jim. Tall fellow. Lovely cheekbones. Somewhere to the right of Ioannis Metaxas.

But there he was at the Tollcross Leisure Complex in Shettleston on Friday, unveiling tax grabs and spending sprees that wouldn’t just make the pips squeak but give them heavy-weird flashbacks to the 1970s. (Team Murphy has spent so much time talking about the SNP helping topple Labour in ’79 that I fear it has become convinced it is the Callaghan government.)

I say “there he was”. It took him 50 minutes after the billed kick-off time to arrive in the hall. The Messiah can tarry but not someone 28 points behind in the polls.

The delay at least gave hacks an opportunity to soak up the atmosphere. Activists were dotted around the venue, decked out in lurid and in some cases pleasantly tight T-shirts branded with “#toriesout”, though juxtaposed with the colour red this inadvertently recalled the Nationalists’ favourite anti-Labour cry.

The backdrop for the event was a series of pastel-hued boards promising, inter alia, a “ban on exploitative zero hours contracts” and “more powers for the Scottish Parliament”.

Mercifully, Margaret Curran finally took to the podium to introduce Jim but alas it was all a ruse. She was in fact teeing up Melanie Ward, the candidate for Glenrothes and Central Fife and the person who would actually welcome La Murphy onto the stage.

Curran is the bête noire of the Nationalists, many of whom despise her and some of whom delight in abusing her online with ostentatious viciousness. She is, however, a street-fighter par excellence and easily the toughest Labour MP around. The manifesto was being launched in her Glasgow East constituency and her remarks reflected her two-pronged strategy for holding off the SNP challenge. First there was the hope – “we are within touching distance of a majority Labour government” – then peanuts for the anti-Tory crowd. “You are the people who could give Iain Duncan Smith his P45,” she quipped to enthusiastic applause.

In truth, the polls indicate that even this won’t be enough to save Curran on May 7 but she’s taken the seat back from the Nationalists once before and only the brave or foolhardy would write her off.

Melanie Ward, a rising star, told the room that 71,000 people depend on food banks in Scotland, 80,000 are on zero-hours contracts, 180,000 are on the waiting list for social housing, 200,000 children live on the breadline, and 820,000 Scots are in poverty. Labour would tackle these social ills because “Scotland succeeds when working people succeed”. The brutality of the statistics was both depressing and underscored the dire straits in which Labour finds itself: If it can’t beat an SNP with a record like that, will it ever be able to beat them again?

Finally, it was time to hear from Jim. After all, he was the one we’d all been waiting (almost an hour) for.

His angular frame slid on stage to applause and foot-stomping (New Labour really is dead) from candidates and activists. He has failed to turn around Labour’s dismal poll numbers but the rosetted ranks know he is still their best bet to avoid a complete wipeout.

His remarks were aided by an easy speaking style that is able to capture attention and hold it. Fortunately, he’s stopped talking in that patronising whisper and his voice is now much bolder.

He still, however, prefaces entirely uncontroversial remarks with an almost defensive “of course”. Of course sunshine is a nice thing. Look, the Nationalists are trying to tell us that sunshine is less Scottish than they are. Of course that’s nonsense. We know it’s not true because we love Scotland. Of course we do. We are proud, patriotic Scots and we want nothing but the best for our sunshine. And I say to the SNP, those rays don’t belong to you. They belong to everyone in Scotland, no matter how they voted in the referendum. Of course they do.

But in one of the day’s many unBlairite notes, Murphy’s speech was far more about substance than style. The centrepiece was a £1bn package of investment for Scotland’s NHS, which Scottish Labour says is in crisis under the Nationalists.

There would be 500 more GPs to go with the 1000 additional NHS nurses already pledged. A £200m cancer fund would give patients access to the very latest and best in drugs while a further £200m would be spent helping people with mental health problems, an issue Murphy has commendably made his own.

On jobs, there would be a guarantee of work or training for those in long-term unemployment, regardless of age. The minimum wage would be raised to at least £8 an hour and would subsequently be replaced by a living wage. Exploitative zero-hours contracts – one wonders how much heavy lifting that adjective is doing – would be banned.

The 50% tax rate for the wealthy would be brought back. Say good riddance to the “bedroom tax” and hello to rent controls and energy price freezes.

He announced plans for state regulation of the bus companies. “Yes, Mr Souter,” he added with bitchy shamelessness.

And as for tax avoiders? Everyone else pays, he noted, before intoning with a laudably straight face: “Labour is serving notice that it’s time for the super-rich flying in from Monaco on their private jets to do the same.”

Jim is 47, from Eastwood, and for his talent portion tonight he’ll be doing his Derek Hatton impersonation.

So unreservedly Old Labour was the speech that there were points where it looked like Murphy might thrust his fist in the air and command the starvlings to arise from their slumbers.

Scottish Labour is throwing the kitchen sink at this election. (I’m surprised they haven’t committed to nationalising the sink.) The worst outcome would be losing. The second worst would be winning. At some point, people are going to start asking how that promised “fairest nation on Earth” is coming along.

Murphy’s shift from the right to the left is remarkable. As conversions go, it’s Damascene — if Saul of Tarsus had found Christ and immediately become a Seventh Day Adventist. Labour politicians used to discover socialism after reading Marx or Laski. Jim Murphy discovered it after reading the opinion polls.

That stands in testament to the earthquake tearing through Scotland. The unleashing of nationalism in the country at large has not only tipped the balance in the SNP decisively in favour of the fundamentalists, it has compelled Scottish Labour to change and return to its left-wing roots. Whether the public will buy Murphy’s and his party’s change of heart as genuine is another matter altogether.

Jim Murphy, a one-man rejoinder to the adage that God loves a trier, has poured every last ounce of effort into this campaign. But the polls detect very little in the way of movement, except for when they’re showing even larger swings to the SNP.

None of this makes sense. Murphy is one of the most skilled politicians of his generation. He is young, handsome, energetic, and easily charming in person. He is almost perfectly attuned to the hopes and fears of aspirational voters. Some of his advisers are amongst the best in the business and they get him on TV daily saying more or less the right thing. He has now notched up several strong debate performances against Nicola Sturgeon and the other leaders.

Of course, of course, it makes perfect sense. It’s a retread of the Kinnock Dilemma: Stick to your unpopular policies and you’ll never be elected but will get credit for a principled stance. Jettison your principles and you’ll still be unelectable because no one trusts a politician who suddenly drops everything they’ve believed in.

But we are where we are and we should judge Scottish Labour’s manifesto on its own merits. And if chief amongst your concerns is a more left-wing direction for public policy, this document has it in spades.

The SNP will unveil its election promises on Monday but unless the Nationalists roll out a major policy shift, Scottish Labour will be going into the election with arguably the most social democratic and openly redistributionist manifesto of all the mainstream parties.

“The SNP is not a proxy for a Labour government,” Murphy warned, “It is a roadblock to a Labour government.”

Taken on its merits, his manifesto offers voters a radical, reforming Labour government of the kind many SNP supporters would like to see.

The question is: Are the voters willing to take anything Labour says on its merits now?

Originally published on STV News.

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