Jim Murphy couldn’t win his joust with Bernard Ponsonby on Wednesday night, whatever winning means in a Scotland unmoored from so many political certainties.
If he had tried, he would have risked looking desperate. Pathetically straining for a game-changer in the dying days of the election campaign.
No, the only thing for it was to push through, run down the clock, and get to the end of the 30-minute interrogation. In politics, the less you want to say, the more you should talk.
Ponsonby pressed the Scottish Labour leader on his flip-flopping on tuition fees and Labour’s plans for further cuts to public expenditure. Why wouldn’t he make progressive common cause with the SNP? Why the obsession with full fiscal autonomy, a policy that is coming to a Scottish Parliament near you no time soon?
Answers such as came were lost amid the maelstrom of crosstalk and clock-running. It seems like everything in Scottish politics is caught up in a violent eddy of history-making right now.
Did we learn anything from the half-hour exchange? Unless you count Murphy’s “outing” of Bernard Ponsonby’s football allegiances – was Bernard ever in as a Celtic fan? – then the answer is No.
But the programme underscored something important about Jim Murphy: his seemingly limitless perseverance. He reads the same polls as the rest of us. He knocks on doors and talks to people. He knows what’s coming. He gets that it’s going to be a bloodbath.
And yet he presses on because what else is there to do. So he gets up on his Irn-Bru crate and tries to croak out the most radical platform the Labour Party has advanced in a generation above screeches of “traitor” and “Red Tories”. He tours the TV studios and submits to an almost hourly doing from one broadcaster or another. He bests Nicola Sturgeon in a string of debates and watches glumly as the polls swing further to, not against, her.
His determination deserves something. It deserves a good measure more loyalty than the poltroonish imputations of two of his comrades, who have anonymously briefed the Daily Telegraph that he is responsible for Scottish Labour’s impending rout and should go after May 7. It is safe to assume neither of these kvetchers could be counted amongst the leading lights of Labour politics. Their facility for self-criticism is certainly lacking if they believe Murphy, barely six months in the job, is to blame for a catastrophe more than a decade in the making. He merits a share of responsibility along with the rest of the Labour ranks but no more than others and in some cases considerably less.
The ritual humiliation to which he subjects himself every day at the hands of triumphalist Nationalists and a contemptuous media warrants something else. It has earned him the right to take a run at 2016. The fact that he may not be an MP in the next Parliament is an important detail but a detail nonetheless. There aren’t going to be very many Scottish Labour MPs at Westminster for the next five years. Constitutional niceties are for parties that don’t have their very survival at stake.
Neil Findlay and Sarah Boyack showed themselves to be capable and thoughtful figures during the party’s leadership race and deputy leader Kezia Dugdale has been something of a revelation in her confident, sometimes fierce performances at First Minister’s Questions. But there is only one leader capable of making a decent fist of the Holyrood elections and to turf him out after half a year would be to hang a “do not resuscitate” sign on Labour’s life-support machine.
This is not mere sentiment. In fact, it is the most hard-headed calculation that can be made. If Labour can be saved in the short term, he is the man to do it. If he fails, it will be because Labour is beyond saving in the short term. Then it will be for Dugdale or someone from her generation to rebuild the party as a progressive force in Scottish politics.
But before Murphy can be written off, he must be given the chance to make his case.