Jim Murphy’s departure alone will not save Scottish Labour

It’s been a right mad few months in Scotland, hasn’t it?

The SNP, a mere 80 years into its existence, brought the 300-year-old Union between Scotland and England to the brink of destruction.

Then the most successful Scottish politician in a generation, Alex Salmond, managed to lose the referendum to the massed forces of Johann Lamont, John Barrowman, and the Orange Order.

He was replaced by Nicola Sturgeon who has overseen the SNP’s transformation into a mass movement, selling out concert arenas and claiming a quasi-religious devotion from its 105,000 members.

And Jim Murphy took Labour so far to the Left that Alex Massie and Chris Deerin ended up voting for it.

But Murphy’s inexplicable failure as Scottish Labour leader isn’t just mad, it’s perverse. He was a proven winner who brought Westminster calibre to Scottish politics. His 100 Towns in 100 Days referendum tour was a rare burst of old-fashioned campaigning in the lumpen, synthetic Better Together organisation. He retained in John McTernan and Blair McDougall two of the best-regarded strategists in Labour politics.

And it was all for naught. Just five months after being elected to the post, Murphy has announced his departure. Even Wendy Alexander lasted longer in the job. Politics is a brutal business and the public exacting clients.

I did little to conceal my conviction that Murphy was the man for the job. I stand by that assessment even now. Contra my email inbox, this is not because I am a Labour shill or an MI5 asset. It is because all the empirical evidence pointed to that conclusion. It was obvious that he was the right choice. Nothing is obvious in Scottish politics anymore.

Jim Murphy warrants a good measure of criticism for the flaws in his leadership. He presided over the near-annihilation of Scottish Labour as a force at Westminster, haemorrhaging the working class vote to a First Minister who intoned about social justice from her branded helicopter. He responded to the SNP’s poll-driven policymaking with his own brand of shameless posturing, a peculiar form of populism that only seemed to decrease his popularity. He wasted precious time bloking on about football when his singular focus should have been selling Labour’s boldly social democratic agenda.

Perception will always do for you in politics. Murphy is a genuine man of the centre-left, as becomes clear when you talk to him about poverty, education, and social inequality. He speaks about his childhood in South Africa with a haunted anger that can never be fully understood by those whose experience of Apartheid was buying their oranges from California instead of Cape Town.

Ultimately, his insider status and polished media delivery cut against him in the fevered anti-politics mood gripping Scotland. He scarcely helped himself with disingenuous claims about parliamentary arithmetic and devolved policy. The more sincere he was the more he sounded like he was reading from an Autocue.

While he is owed a share of responsibility for the events of May 7, it would be risible to lay the blame solely or even primarily with him. He threw himself into saving Scottish Labour with great gusto but the (self-inflicted) damage was already too extensive. Labour had grown fat off Scottish votes and assumed Scotland would always do its duty; Scotland saw this complacency and rebelled against it. It is clearer now than it was then that by the time Murphy came on the scene the voters had set their minds and hardened their hearts against Labour.

Given these factors, Murphy’s departure was neither inevitable nor necessary. He could have led the party into next year’s Scottish Parliament elections with an almighty assault on the SNP’s policy failures in government. It may have been ultimately futile but it would at least have resolved the question of whether Scotland’s attachment to Nationalism is now stronger than its concern for education, health, and justice outcomes.

That will now not happen because the unions — not the members, mind — have decided to force out the man they opposed in the first place. This is why Murphy used the statement declaring his resignation to issue a stinging rebuke to Unite baron Len McCluskey, who demonstrated his commitment to solidarity earlier this week by blaming Scottish Labour for Ed Miliband’s thumping last Thursday.

Murphy said pointedly: “The leader of the Scottish Labour Party doesn’t serve at the grace of Len McCluskey, and the next leader of the UK Labour Party should not be picked by Len McCluskey.”

The defeated MP for East Renfrewshire will spend the last month of his leadership compiling proposals for modernising the Scottish Labour Party.

I wrote at the time of his election:

Murphy’s first act as leader should be to draw up a list of policies McCluskey would like him to pursue. He should then take a red pen and write at the top of the page: ‘In the event of Hell freezing over’.

Murphy’s final act as leader should be to draw up a list of reforms that ensure McCluskey and his ilk see their stranglehold on Labour dramatically loosened. Murphy insists Labour’s problem “is not the link with trade unions” and yet one union boss was able to install one of UK Labour’s least capable leaders and decapitate Scottish Labour’s most capable leader — both with relative ease. Scottish Labour, like the UK party, has to deal once and for all with its union problem. Murphy should also pave the way for the most talented of the defeated MP crop to return in the 2016 Holyrood elections.

Murphy’s internal critics will be celebrating though what cause they have for joy escapes me. They are rid of this troublesome Blairite but here is a thought to focus their minds: Jim Murphy is one of the most skilled political operators of his generation. He was a successful Scottish Secretary. He captured and held the one-time Tory bastion of East Renfrewshire for 18 years. He is an adept communicator and easy media performer.

If he couldn’t save Scottish Labour, is there anyone who can?

Of the current MSP group, deputy leader Kezia Dugdale seems the obvious choice to replace Murphy. She has turned in a number of strong performances at First Minister’s Questions, getting under Nicola Sturgeon’s skin like few others. The First Minister is a sincere social democrat living with the policy half-life of her predecessor’s populist poses. Dugdale has expertly stuck the knife in on college cuts and missed A&E targets. At 33, she is young but Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson was just 32 when she took the helm of her party.

Dugdale will need reserves of confidence, stamina, and emotional mettle to go up against the Nationalist machine. She would go into the job knowing the odds were dauntingly stacked against her and the only reward would be keeping the lights on. Victory is a long way off.

If Scottish Labour is to survive, it will not be enough merely to elect a strong leader or even to redeem itself in the eyes of the voters by earning back their trust. The task is to reconstruct a centre-left economics-based alternative to nationalism and the politics of feeling. That challenge is one for the long term and will surely rank amongst the greatest struggles Labour has ever faced.

Originally published on STV News. Feature image © Thomas Nugent and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

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